Marketing Under The GDPR: What’s Old Is New Again


As we approach the May 25th deadline for the European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which aims to protect citizens’ data privacy, a lot of businesses are sweating the changes. They’re worried about what it will mean to their retention and use of customers’ personal information. Fear of massive fines, the burden of preparatory work and confusion over what specifics of the law will mean in practicality are concerning businesses that rely on commerce with the world’s largest trading block.

This is a hard change. More than 20 years of business practices, beliefs and habits are second nature. We’ve adopted and capitalized on every capability that technology offered. Why not?

Now, the EU, where privacy is legally a human right, is imposing massive reform. The GDPR is pushing back at the accelerating digitized tracking of our lives, which often happens without our full understanding or consent. Undoubtedly, the changes it brings will impact the way we do business around the world.

At this moment, the marketing profession is offered a unique opportunity for reflection. Rather than viewing the GDPR as a burden of doing business in Europe, we can use it to reconnect with core principles of true and trusted brand-customer relationships, enabled in a new way.

Up to the mid-90s, marketing was largely targeted at brokered lists or post-sale experience. It was hyper-focused and relied on active opt-in — points clubs, coupons, product registration cards — where customers willingly gave permission to engage. The costs and time constraints of analog marketing bounded its volume and scale.

With the dawn of the internet, marketing became hyper-broad. The internet made it possible — and cheap — to track and leverage huge volumes of data. Many well-meaning companies became over-enthused, pushing boundaries in ways neither they nor consumers could have conceived even a few years back. Today, ad blockers, privacy concerns and “noise” fatigue are widespread and growing. This is not a way to form lasting brand-customer relationships.

The GDPR is forcing a different dynamic. It is being enacted as a value to customers, demanding more meaningful interaction and acknowledgment of their preferences. How can marketing work within its confines to ensure that value is received? And how can this thinking and behavior extend to other markets?

With appropriate nuance, this new but old dynamic, enhanced with digitized capabilities, creates a tremendous opportunity for better, stronger customer engagement in ways not previously possible. We must now apply big data-type thinking to smaller but potentially richer data sets.

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