The future of marketing in a consent-based economy: The EU-GDPR and being on the right side of history this May 25th

It was October 2001 and I had been living in California less than two years, after moving from London during the heady final days of the dotcom boom. I remember the day well; the marketing department was empty and there were cardboard boxes in the lobby. Then I got the call to come up to the CMO’s office to meet with him and our head of HR.

“There’s good news and bad news” were the words that greeted me. The bad news was that the entire marketing team had been let go except one marketing manager, one product marketer and me (the director of marketing). The good news, I was told, was that I still had a job, although the three of us now had to deliver on what a very large team had been responsible for before.

That was my first exposure to a major shift in modern marketing, and that was the move from direct mail, events and print advertising to email and web marketing. We literally had no choice – but it worked, and it worked very well.

Fast forward to 2018, and we’re about to undergo a very similar transition. In the interim, web, email and what we all now refer to as ‘digital marketing’ has advanced in both sophistication and downsides as has the sheer volume of communication. We’re now in the post-Facebook/Cambridge Analytica world, in which (some) governments are starting to legislate.

In the last few weeks, we’ve all been inundated by requests from retailers, brands, associations, non-profits, governmental institutions and social media platforms imploring us to accept new data protection terms. By agreeing, we allow them to continue sending us hundreds of emails using advanced send-time optimization technology – so emails all arrive after a quiet Sunday like London busses or all at once, filling inboxes at 8 a.m. every Monday morning like people elbowing onto the tube.      

And yes, I know many of us will agree, simply because we’re too busy to go through the steps to say no, which is how we got on so many lists to begin with. In many cases though, we won’t and it’s because we don’t see the value in it. Most of us get on lists because we forget to uncheck little boxes in long forms or even when we do, companies play fast and loose with the law, equating an online purchase with tacit agreement to send us marketing emails thereafter.

I know of one well-known consumer travel broker I made a single booking through (carefully unchecking their “no email” opt-out) who auto-opted me in anyway and then provided no in-mail unsubscribe options. I had to call them! They told me it would take 12 weeks to have me removed from marketing communications that I never asked to receive. This was just two months ago, and May 25th can’t come fast enough for folks like this. It’s the day that marks the start of the punishable period for the European Union’s (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

And so, I finally arrive at the point of this blog; we’re about to experience another paradigm shift (as we marketers oft like to say) in our still young discipline. It shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing, but rather as a unique opportunity. Very much like Japanese Knotweed (the incredibly fast-growing plant species) or Microsoft SharePoint (the popular platform more than 200,000 organizations have used), email is not going away any time soon – but it is going to change, and for the better.

I for one am looking forward to May 26th when I should never again see emails like these:



List brokers are like low price Viagra sellers were before Pfizer lost their mandate. Anyone who’s anyone in B2B marketing knows that their claims of providing accurate contact lists for competitors’ customers do way more harm than good. Not least of which because such is the state of unemployment in some western economies today (low single digits) that even emailing your attendee list from last year’s annual conference will result in ~40 percent bounce rates. In other words, contacts date fast.

Pariahs’ days are numbered, and it will result in something far better—fewer but far more valuable listing firms who will (hopefully) base their lists on buyer presences and consumer consent. The result is consensual targeting on steroids.     

In full disclosure, although you probably know already, I work for a company who helps B2B and B2C marketers and merchandisers get their message across to customers and potential customers by using our technology. That’s right, we provide send-time optimization and personalization technology as part of our email marketing, content management and digital commerce platform. Yet our technology is not the problem. Although it certainly enables it, it can also enable a very different approach to communication.

It may not be as big to tech or business as Y2K was (or as it turned out was not), yet without doubt, the EU’s GDPR is to marketing what Sarbanes-Oxley was to finance, with all of the associated overhead in cost and administration.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe GDPR will usher in the end of digital marketing. Rather, GDPR helps bring into focus something that marketers have put off for far too long – and that’s the need to deliver real value to those with actual intent.

For modern marketing, particularly when it comes to content, quality over quantity will be the new standard. Being on the right side of history this Friday, May 25th means adopting a consent-based and customer-preference lead marketing strategy.

Have you?