Let's Talk About Consent and the Future of Permission-Based Marketing

A closer look at the opt-out experience reveals it's time for a new path forward

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Let’s talk about consent.

It’s a critically important subject for marketers. How we get it, how long it’s valid for, and how we maintain it. Typically referred to as permission-based marketing, consent is needed to allow us to land in a user’s email or messaging inbox with marketing offers and announcements.

Because consent is a dynamic state of a relationship and not a static one, we must offer consumers easy avenues by which to provide or revoke that very thing. One-click email unsubscribes and STOP2END reminders at the end of SMS marketing texts stand as positive examples of that.

Unfortunately, despite rhetoric from myriad brands that they are customer-centric, it has become clear that permission-based marketing has become a game of obfuscation, confusion and misdirection, disempowering consumers from acting in their own best interest. In service of more leads, sales and conversions, permission has moved away from an act of agency and toward one of manipulation.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Marketers must do better. It’s time to make a choice: Either we mean what we say and we empower consumers, or we stop all this performative talk and keep on doing what we’re doing. But we can’t keep doing both.

In that spirit, we propose a new path forward: ethical permission-based marketing (EPBM). In the most user-friendly way possible, EPBM empowers users to define and control their relationship with a brand’s marketing communications.

The information hierarchy is skewed

Here is an example of permission-based marketing from GolfChannel.com:

Reading the article requires the consumer to make a choice: enable ads or don’t. And of course, the reader is not-so-subtly reminded that opting into this tracking is what allows the site to continue operations. (Why figure out a monetization strategy when you can just sell consumer data?)

But this choice is a false one. Where is the option to continue without disabling? Where is the button to opt out? Neither exists, and it takes several hard refreshes of the page to generate a version of this pop-up that even offers that. And when it does:

The information hierarchy is skewed. The opt-out is dark gray (which is inaccessible on a black background), and is buried far below the bright, visible blue opt-in button, visible only if someone is looking for it.

Instances like these are only the most visible of the ways marketers are working to disempower consumer agency.

And consumers are taking note. While approximately half of consumers accept all cookies (though it should be noted that this does not convey acceptance as much as it might resignation), one-third try to manage their options, and almost another 10% will decline all or leave the website.

But the real indictment of our current climate is this insight, from the very same report: “Banners are set up so that the fastest way to make them go away is just to accept all the cookies.” This is not designed to allow a consumer to act in their own best interest, but in the marketer’s best interest instead.

Consumers deserve clear, influence-agnostic choices

No more big and bold opt-in buttons with opt-out language buried 250 pixels below. No more one-tap opt-ins and 10-tap opt-outs. No more false binaries—“Accept My Choices” and “Accept All Cookies” should not be drawn as equivalences after I’ve just toggled off optional cookies. No more imbalanced information.

Consider the below, from Sports Illustrated.

Or this, from The Tennis Channel.

The former does everything short of clicking the “Accept” button for users. The latter is a process, as seen in a closer look at the coding in a similar example, developed to exhaust and exasperate users, manipulating them to forgo their selections and simply press ahead with cookies.

EPBM offers an experience free of psychological tricks.

We’ve all seen, or maybe even written, pop-ups with language that delivers a negative emotion to the reader.

  • “Wait! Are you really leaving without getting our amazing deals?”
  • “No thanks, I’m not someone who likes saving money.”
  • “Yes, I want to be successful in my career.” (Implying that if someone selects no, they prefer to be a failure.)

Harmless marketing verbiage? No. It’s demeaning to the reader and often triggers emotions and actions driven by shame.

Is that what we aspire to do as marketers? Drive sales through debasement? Certainly, it’s not what any of us got into this industry to do.

Going forward, we call on marketers to practice EPBM with their email/order pop-ups and present simple Yes/No options.

That doesn’t only make for a better customer experience, it makes for better business too. Consultancy Siegel+Gale has found that “64% of consumers are more likely to recommend a brand because of simple experience” and “55% of consumers are willing to pay more for uncomplicated experiences.”

A consumer experience based on mutual respect

Why do I have to unsubscribe dozens of times to get off your list? Why do I have to log in to my account to unsubscribe? Why do I have to opt out of each list?

The current system isn’t designed to let consumers get out. If a consumer wins, a business loses. So advertisers have made it harder and harder for the average person to escape the content flywheel.

The landscape of permission-based marketing is at a crossroads. The concept of consent, once a pillar of consumer empowerment, has been distorted into a game of manipulation and confusion. Marketers must acknowledge this unsettling trend and make a choice: to either genuinely prioritize consumer agency or continue down a path of rhetoric without action.

The time has come to decide—a future built on EPBM beckons, where the consumer is not just a target but a respected partner in the marketing journey.