European GDPR set to turn email marketing consent on its head

European GDPR set to turn email marketing consent on its head
Claire Walker is the founder and CEO of Firefly Communications, and a leading figure in the PR industry. Managing offices in London, Paris and Munich, Claire is profiled as one of Britain’s Top 100 influential business women and was the Public Relations Consultants Association’s personality of the year in 2011. A mother of three and a big fan of competitive tennis, Claire has plenty to keep herself busy with, and loves time saving gadgets that keep her connected to everything going on around her.

Even with Brexit looming, the likelihood is that the UK will apply the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) around May 2018, along with the rest of continental Europe.

These regulations will turn consent on its head and change how marketers and sales organisations collect, handle and generally process information. Put simply, a specific confirmation to opt-in is going to be required as the norm, not a reliance on people to opt-out.

And if over 50% of your inbox being unsolicited email, as with most people, that’s going to make quite a difference to your life and a marketer’s responsibilities.

The major upshot of the GDPR is that marketers must have consent from their audience to be marketed to. This includes both B2B and B2C marketers, so whichever segment your organisation targets, you must have clear documentation saying that your audience is happy for you to use their data – and it must be clear which data – and be marketed to.

Of course, if you’ve purchased a list of potential customers, you must ensure that you obtain similar documentation from whoever you purchase the list from.

Beware penalties

When it comes to the GDPR, ensuring that your organisation has permission to hold consumer data is vital because the penalties – up to €10m or 2% of the annual, worldwide company turnover – are severe in the extreme.

But one fascinating part of the GDPR regulations is that they do not draw a line between human and automated systems. For example, for a long time, Google has made it clear that whilst the content of emails stored within its Gmail system are scanned for the purposes of generating targeted adverts, no humans are involved in this process.

This is also the basis for much automated ad buying, product recommendations on Amazon and other major retail sites.

Whilst the regulations do not hold the code itself liable – rather, the creator/manager of automated code is liable – it does bring data processing regulations up to date in a much-needed way.

Unless your attendees have opted into being contacted, sending a simple follow-up mail could land you in hot water

It should also end the practice of ‘sneaky consent’, that is to say, printing pages and pages of small print with the important parts of the agreement in article six, subsection nine, paragraph seventeen. Clear and unambiguous consent is not simply a ‘gold standard’ any more, it is a bare minimum – and with fines sufficiently stringent to severely impact an organisation’s profitability, it is something that marketers cannot – literally – afford to ignore.

Who should be cautious?

So who should be particularly wary of these new regulations, and are there any applications of the marketing discipline which may be taken by surprise? Here are some starters for ten:

1. Any marketer who doesn’t have an opt-in list

Opt-in, rather than opt-out, will be the norm in the post-GDPR world.

Marketers will need a document from each and every prospect acknowledging that they are willing to be marketed to or they risk being caught out

2. Marketing automation specialists, particularly integrated ones

Do you have a CRM which talks to your marketing automation system and sends out emails on your behalf? If something goes wrong and it sends a mail to someone who hasn’t opted in, you could be in breach.

3. Event organisers

It’s incredibly common to send a thank you note and supporting material to everyone who visited your event – it’s like a promotional party bag.

But attending an event is not a clear and unambiguous indication of wanting further communication, so unless your attendees have opted into being contacted, sending a simple follow-up mail could land you in hot water.

4. Public relations execs

Sending information to journalists is no different to marketing to an employee of a business. Whilst it’s possible that the liability for this consent will lie with media databases, it may also land on each individual agency. Either way, journalists will have to consent to be contacted by these third parties.

Whilst these regulations are clearly aimed at protecting consumers rather than helping brands, it could actually have exactly this effect in the long-term. Marketing to an audience which has already affirmed its interest in a topic is far, far more likely to result in that audience moving down the sales funnel quicker.

However, finding these consumers and producing quality content to engage them, will of course continue to present a challenge to brands.

We will certainly be watching the dawn of GDPR with both interest and trepidation, but it’s very important that whilst marketers keep an eye on their own conduct, they must also remember to supervise the conduct of their teams – both human and automated.

After all, in addition to the financial fines, the media bloodbath resulting from the first robot to cause a company to be fined (up to £10m or 2% of turnover) or worse, go bankrupt – would be a frenzied spectacular of epic proportions.

And no-one wants to be the human behind that machine.  

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