What does the General Data Protection Regulation mean for your marketing?

Marketing in a nutshellWith the General Data Protection Regulation coming into force in May 2018, with its emphasis on transparency and accountability, small business owners really need to act now to established opt-in practices that will not only comply with this legislation but will stand them in good stead for improved marketing performance. Think about marketing to existing customers and new prospects alike and find the model that will work best for your business.


The General Data Protection Regulation is a new EU legal framework on the processing of personal data due to apply in the UK from 25 May 2018. It presents some significant changes to current data protection legislation, especially for any business operating B2B.

“But it’s European legislation so it can’t apply to my business because… Brexit!”

Wrong. You need to take this change seriously because:

  • Article 50 is a two-year procedure and it is not expected to be triggered until March 2017 which means the UK would still be in the EU until 2019 at the earliest. So, at least for a short time, the UK will be subject to the Regulation (GDPR) as confirmed earlier this month by Secretary of State, Karen Bradley MP.
  • There is no guarantee that the UK would then adopt less stringent standards for data protection. There is no real benefit in doing so and at this point, we just don’t know so there is a strong case for staying on the safe side.
  • If you deal with customers elsewhere within the EU the Regulation will apply to the data you hold on them regardless of the UK’s position.

I can’t pretend to be a legal expert and this certainly has the capacity to become complicated with the Regulation affecting all types of personal data not just that collected for marketing purposes. The Information Commissioner has an overview of the issues here.

But personal data for marketing will undoubtedly be an important focus and business owners should be considering what they are going to do about it now. Why? Under the new Regulation:

Transparency is a key issue

Individuals must freely give specific and informed consent for the use of their personal data for a specific purpose. That means that if you want to use their contact details for marketing purposes they must have agreed to that. It will no longer be acceptable to infer consent, for example, from their previously having purchased from you. This will apply as much in B2B marketing as in B2C.

Consent must be unbundled from other matters

You cannot make performance of a contract dependant on agreeing to be sent marketing communications if that is not necessary for the performance of the contract. For example, the practice of venues asking for personal contact details in exchange for access to their free wifi will no longer be acceptable.

This could apply to your existing marketing lists

All data that you already hold will need to be audited against the new standards. If it does not conform then you will need to refresh it by asking for consent that is compliant with the Regulation. If you have to go back to every contact on your existing marketing lists and ask them to explicitly opt in to receive your marketing communications that could be a big headache. And the chances of them responding as you want and doing so promptly if you leave this exercise to the last minute are slim.

So how should you pre-empt this change? If you already have a clear opt-in procedure in place that is transparent in what it ask for and what it promises in return, then congratulations. You most probably have no need to worry.

But if not, then think about these options.

Marketing to existing customers

Never forget the benefits of repeat business and of keeping your customer coming back. Regular contact with existing customers is vital but you might not be able to rely on the “soft opt-in” of assuming they’ve purchased one thing so you can continue to market all sorts to them. What are your options here?

Ask them to opt in to overt marketing communications

Why not? It works well in a lot of consumer markets and even B2B where there is a strong likelihood of multiple purchases over time especially if opting in means your customers get access to early notification of new products, exclusive discounts and the like.

Make regular communication part of the service or aftersales support

A more soft touch approach than overt marketing might be a more appropriate way to stay on their radar. You can’t make delivery of the main service dependent on agreeing to blatant marketing but maintaining a relationship by “being there” in a useful way also keeps you in their minds and could be particularly good for larger more occasional purchases.

Build regular communication into your business model

A subscription or membership model by definition requires regular communication to ensure regular repeat sales (as well as being good for the cash flow). If this isn’t a good fit for your business, a loyalty programme gives customers a strong, clear and positive reason to opt in to hearing from you, as well as being a good way to strengthen their relationship with your brand.

Reward referrals

An attractive offer that encourages loyalty and advocacy can be a good basis on which to reward customers for referring others to your business. That third party recommendation can be the encouragement someone needs to opt in themselves.

Marketing to prospects

Marketing to prospects is a different kettle of fish and if one good thing comes of this new Regulation I hope it will be an end to business owners buying suspect lists of info@ email addresses and expecting anyone to respond to a badly crafted, probably irrelevant, email campaign. Instead, you’ll need to get individuals – and this does include B2B decision makers – to opt in so you need to offer them something of value.

Offer them a real newsletter

If you ask people to sign up for a newsletter, make it a newsletter. Tell them what sort of news it’s going to be; show them an example, even. Make sure that it remains relevant and useful. You might give them access to white papers, research results, exclusive content, events…

Ask them to opt in to overt marketing communications

We’ve come full circle! It might be a little tougher to get prospects to sign up rather than customers who already have a positive experience of dealing with you but why not? Just remember to be clear about the deal and ensure that you are compliant with the new Regulation.

Overall, I can’t deny that the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation is likely to be a pain in the neck. I’m not really looking forward to dealing with it myself. But my advice to clients is to build it into your marketing communications strategy now to give you a sound foundation well before you’re obliged to comply.

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