How GDPR brought email marketing to new heights

Data Protection Authority

Written by Chris Hyde, Vice President of Technical Operations, Validity.

Between summer 2016 and summer 2018, marketers of all stripes found themselves in a worrisome position. After a series of high-profile data breaches and scandals involving the mismanagement of consumer data by businesses, public and governmental attention was turned towards the value of personal data. GDPR, to be launched in May 2018, was the inevitable result. 

What troubled these marketers most was the fact that GDPR highlighted just how much they relied on customer data to do their jobs. If GDPR was to accomplish what it set out to, the data well might soon run dry, and they’d have to figure out a new way of working. 

For email marketers in particular, the perceived threat to their valuable email lists was grave. GDPR enforces a requirement for subscribers to opt into email marketing correspondence. If they do not, they’re automatically opted-out. The end result was email marketers taking chunks out of the sizeable email lists they’d spent years building up.

Understandably, there was an air of anxiety. Many were nervous their marketing programmes were going to be severely hindered by the tighter regulatory standards. 

Interestingly, these worries seem to have been unfounded. Research by the Data and Marketing Association (DMA) reveals that email marketers adapted to the regulatory change better than even they might have expected. According to the DMA, by May 2019, only a year after GDPR’s introduction, email marketing initiatives have seen a marked improvement in efficacy. 

Other regions and countries are beginning to emulate Europe’s example, putting in place their own data protection regulations , such as Brazil’s Lei Geral de Proteção de Dados (LGPD) and California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). With this in mind, now seems like a good time to investigate how GDPR has positively impacted email marketing initiatives, so that email marketers outside the EU might learn some lessons of how greater data privacy doesn’t mean lesser marketing. 

The GDPR cleanse

Despite email marketers’ fears, the DMA’s Marketer Email Tracker report revealed that that there was actually an uplift against all major KPIs post-GDPR. Most marketers experienced increased deliverability (67% of respondents), open rates (74%), click-through rates (75%) and conversion rates (67%).

Additionally, negative metrics were reduced. Opt-outs and spam complaints were down by 41% and 55% respectively. This is very significant – improved deliverability with lower complaints means companies have a clear advantage when it comes to getting in front of their consumers.

One clear reason for this performance uptick is that, although email lists were truncated post-GDPR, this effectively acted as a forced data cleanse. Mandatory opt-ins meant that inactive subscribers who were not engaging any longer were removed and only those still actively engaging remained. Rather than a destroyer of valuable subscriber lists, GDPR has, in fact, been an exercise in spring cleaning.  

This has pushed email marketers to embrace the old ‘quality over quantity’ adage, and work harder to reach their dedicated subscribers in more creative ways. 

Proper prior preparation

While many organisations’ marketing departments dragged their feet when it came to GDPR compliance, data from Yieldify has revealed just how damaging it was to be a laggard.  Those companies who acted fastest to achieve GDPR compliance saw the biggest gains on their key metrics. Additionally, participation in loyalty programmes, targeting and, most importantly, online purchasing, all increased for those quick off the mark.

Additional benefits noted in the research include higher consumer ratings, customer satisfaction, and increased levels of trust, which doubtless factored heavily into the online sales stats. 

A report from Marketo has similar findings, but drills down further into the manner in which compliance was approached. They demark marketers as being either “legal first” or “marketing first” in their attitude to compliance. The latter aimed to build stronger, more effective relationships with their customers through GDPR, and were found to be 72% more likely to exceed their business objectives as result. These improved metrics really speak to how, despite the years of worry, GDPR, if approached proactively and thoughtfully, has actually been a net gain for email marketers.  

Retail wins the post- GDPR world

Of all the sectors looking to adapt to GDPR quickest, retail proved to be the marketing equivalent of Usain Bolt. Yieldify’s research found that it was one of the best performing sectors in driving database growth, reaching 101% of its pre-GDPR database size. 

One of the most effective tactics for driving this re-growth was the smart placement of account registration or opt-in options along the customer journey. Placing these buttons at checkout, potentially with added incentives for those who opt-in, seems like a simple trick, but one that other sectors failed to clock-on to until more recently.  

A fair price for personal data

The modern consumer is no longer in the dark regarding the value their data holds for businesses. They’re more clued-up on their data rights and the regulatory clout they can bring down on businesses. Indeed, complaints to the ICO have resultantly tripled since May 2018. 

Although people understand the value of their data, they don’t overvalue it. The DMA Consumer Attitudes to Privacy report identified 53% of consumers as “Pragmatists”, which means they are willing to share their data, but only if they a fair exchange is on the cards. 

‘Value’ in this context is not as straightforward as one might imagine, though. It’s not necessarily about being sold a deal on an item or service. Information can also be dealt in exchange for data.  

As an example of this, we are seeing more emails from marketers where the focus is on providing news, inspiration or value statements. Marketing emails are taking the forms of newsletters, providing tips, advice, and news snippets relevant to their industry. 

How email marketers use data in the post-GDPR world is arguably a change for the better for both sides of the equation. Consent from consumers is now more robust, expectations are better set, and there’s more choice on the kinds of correspondence one can opt-in to. As such, it’s clear why trust levels are rising, and consumers are more willing to provide better-quality data . 

In turn, this higher-quality data is enabling marketers to better target consumers, and drive more engagement and therefore more purchases. The email marketing landscape has become more thoughtful, and ‘data harvesting’ has been replaced with something more transactional and, hopefully, mutually beneficial. 

What does this mean for marketers globally?  

Following the success of GDPR, data privacy regulations are now picking up a head of steam globally.  California brought in CCPA at the beginning of the year, Brazil is gearing up to enforce LGPD in August, and Australia is currently processing legislation to strengthen its own data privacy laws. 

If any email marketers in these territories are nervous about what impact these regulations will have on their campaigns, they need only look at the positive effects that GDPR has had on EU-based marketing initiatives, to calm themselves. 

Whether EU marketers were initially displeased with drastically changing their methods for GDPR is now irrelevant. The after-effect has seen email marketers adapt and come out stronger on the other side. It’s been better for consumers and better for marketers. Well done, GDPR.


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