How I learned to love the unsubscribe button

Consent is at the heart of GDPR – and that poses a challenge for marketers

Marketers are going to end up a database of opt-in consumers, people who actually want to hear from them.

Marketers are going to end up a database of opt-in consumers, people who actually want to hear from them.

 

If my email inbox is anything to go by, a wave of “re-permissioning” has hit as companies rush to comply with the rules of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which come into effect on May 25th.

Of the 23 emails on Friday asking in various, though uniformly chummy and honey-toned solicitous ways (isn’t it amazing how nice companies can be when they want something?) if I’d like to keep receiving “our newsletter”, “news of our great deals”, “messages to help you live your best life”, “our monthly e-flyer” and so on, I clicked “subscribe” to just four and a firm “unsubscribe” to the rest.

For small businesses relying heavily on direct marketing, such as online retailers or niche producers – never mind big outfits with massive customer relations programmes – that represents a horrible strike rate and (small) proof that the GDPR will have the immediate impact feared by advertisers of drastically reducing their databases.

The unsubscribed emails weren’t spam congratulating me on winning the Spanish lottery or wondering if I’d like my penis enlarged – I have no clue how to get rid of those emails – rather they were from reputable companies which had me on their databases for marketing purposes and regularly (often to my irritation) contact me by email.

The curious thing is that, for several, I have no recollection of ever giving permission or signing up for email contact, while for others I suspect I am on their database simply because I inquired about a service or perhaps bought something in the distant past. That’s how ambiguous the rules of data collection for email marketing have been.

And that goes to the heart of the consumer empowering element of the GDPR, prompting the current spate of re-permissioning – and the challenge it presents for marketers.

Pre-ticked boxes

Consent to receive emails must be given with “clear, affirmative action” and that consent can only be valid for a period of time. So, no more opt-out consent: those pre-ticked boxes on booking enquiries or sales contracts, with the line that you must untick the box if you don’t want to receive future marketing information.

So those business card fishbowls on desks at conferences and events are gone, and the rules around competitions have changed

And the time limit matters too. Just because you signed up to, say a gym several new years ago doesn’t mean you still want their special offers clogging up your email for all (guilt-inducing) time. So regular “re-permissioning” is required.

There is a “legitimate interest” clause in the new legislation that might give marketers an out when it comes to challenges to data use, but proving legitimate interest is going to be difficult for the vast majority of products and services.

The new rules also challenge the long-held idea that the bigger the marketing database, the better it is. As well as dealing with GDPR data storage requirements, data protection access systems and impact assessments, even small companies will have to get used to collecting data in a more transparent way and operating off leaner and – this is the upside for them – more focused lists.

For smaller businesses without access to third-party-provided databases (and there are new rules about them), the old tried-and-tested local methods to build a database aren’t going to work either. They are severely curtailed by the rules.

So those business card fishbowls on desks at conferences and events are gone, and the rules around competitions have changed.

Specific consent

Amassing email addresses from competitions has long been seen as a cheap and easy way to build a marketing database but, from May 25th, those competition entry emails cannot automatically be kept or used to communicate with a customer (other than for the competition), unless specific consent has been obtained.

I was pleased to get the text, having forgotten the time of my appointment. And anyway it was arguably sent for legitimate interest reasons

Gone too are those “refer a friend” schemes, where an existing customer gets some money off or a gift by supplying details of a friend who might be interested in joining or buying.

And charities which gather donor data – names and mobile phone numbers for later marketing use from one-off SMS donation drives – can’t use or keep those details unless they obtain specific consent.

While I was happily clicking “unsubscribe”, a text came in from another small business I use – my dentist. I have never given written consent for an appointment reminder, it being a newfangled service offered only recently by the practice so, post-May 25th, I shouldn’t get these at all. But I was pleased to get the text, having forgotten the time of my appointment. And anyway it was arguably sent for legitimate interest reasons.

“It’s short-term pain for long-term gain,” says Alan Coleman, chief executive of Wolfgang Digital. “What marketers are going to end up with is a database of opt-in consumers, people who want to hear from them. They will have to think harder and more creatively though about how to keep and encourage those people, give them better rewards and experiences.”

Noting that advertisers spend a long time chasing new business and building awareness, often not paying too much attention to the customers they already have, he says the GDPR is great for loyal customers: “They’ll be feeling a bit more love.”

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