Marketing consent and GDPR compliance has been a priority for the past year for marketing departments across the UK and EU. The introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018 has had an immediate, far-reaching impact on how businesses handle customer data and – crucially – how they market across digital channels.

For many businesses, the need to explicitly consent customers to opt into marketing has led to a flurry of increasingly desperate emails clogging customer in-boxes begging for continued opt-in. Across the web, sites are throwing up consent boxes, cookie policy notifications and in many cases – especially US sites – refusing to even show a website to EU citizens without explicit opt-in of full-fat tracking and behaviour monitoring cookies.

Stuck in the middle are consumers, faced with a blizzard of opt-in requests, a dizzying dashboard of tracking consents and increasingly frantic marketing teams concerned that their marketable customer database has been damagingly eroded.

So what can marketing teams do in the new GDPR era? The answer is to pivot to pull-based marketing – using content marketing to become a trusted, authentic brand in customers’ lives and using content to pull relevant customers into the brand world.

What is GDPR?

Short for General Data Protection Regulation, it’s EU legislation that has been enacted by the UK, and sees aging data protection laws given a much-needed overhaul. It brings control over personal data far more into the hands of consumers, and reflects the need for data to be processed, handled and shared transparently, securely and with the full consent of the customer.

GDPR covers a lot of data ground. It governs how data is captured from consumers – including explicit, informed consent – through to how data is processed, stored and shared with third-parties. Consumers have the right to see any data held and have the right of erasure of that data in some circumstances. All data captured and processed has to be for a lawful purpose, and companies getting it wrong face a fine that has increased to £18m or 4% of global turnover. With GDPR, the data stakes have never been higher.

You can find a helpful guide to GDPR with the ICO guide to General Data Protection Regulation.

How does GDPR affect marketing?

For marketing teams, the biggest headache is customer consent. No longer can businesses rely on pre-ticked opt-in boxes for marketing consent – and all activity has to be for legitimate purposes. If your business relies on email marketing, that means you need to reconsent every customer on your database. If you hadn’t done this by May 25, 2018, there’s a risk the ICO could take an interest in your marketing and data set-up.

Consent has to be freely given, informed and unambiguous. That means you can’t market to someone who simply downloaded a white paper or free guide without giving their consent. You have to ask their explicit permission and spell out what you will do with their data. You also need proof of that consent – data capture has to be designed to fall within the requirements of GDPR.

The impact of third-party advertising platforms is even more profound. Customers have to opt in to tracking cookies and behaviour monitoring. Unsurprisingly there is little consumer appetite to be tracked around the web for the purposes of advertisers.

Companies such as Apple are also poised to up the data and privacy ante. New versions of the web browser Safari in Apple’s macOS Mojave release later this year will actively work to flummox tracking and digital fingerprinting of people’s online activities.

Content marketing and GDPR

With GDPR putting the long-overdue brakes on some of the less consumer-friendly data marketing – and having a big-enough stick to act as a deterrent – it opens the way for marketing teams to pivot to pull-based marketing. Pull is far different to push. Instead of spamming inboxes with product offers and clogging web pages with product features and calls to action, brands – like publishers – are going to have to get content smart.

Brands are, in effect, going to have to think and act like publishers in their own right. Pull marketing means creating useful content that customers actually find relevant to their lives. Content that makes a human connection on their terms, rather than the traditional ‘all about us’ digital marketing of pre-GDPR times.

Here’s how push-based content marketing can benefit businesses – and customers – post the launch of GDPR:

Relevant content – content that genuinely engages customers isn’t about the brand. Or its products. Or its CEO. It’s actually all about the customer as a unique individual living their life. Content needs to be relevant within the context of the brand. Helping customers understand their options by providing useful, helpful content will build brand trust.

Wider context – if brands need to think like publishers, they need to provide content that talks more widely than their products and services. Customer choice isn’t about why they should choose your particular product – it’s about helping that choice in the wider context of a customer’s life. For example, financial guidance through lifestages, such as a new home or starting a family, doesn’t always have an answer that neatly lands with the brand’s products and services. Offering general guidance that a customer finds useful – even if they don’t end up buying anything – pays dividends in the long run.

Emotional engagement – customers are drawn to content that they need, addresses a question they are hunting an answer to, or entertains, inspires and touches them on an emotional level. Creativity, imagination and creating content stories that reinforce your brand beliefs and values are going to have more relevance than a web page with a product features list.

Discoverable content – with marketing teams having to pivot to pull-based marketing, simply pushing a marketing message into an email inbox have been significantly hamstrung. Instead, you need to create a content marketing strategy that identifies, plans for and delivers content that potential customers are actively seeking. SEO and a focus on SERP will see an uptick.

Winning trust – content marketing done well, and with the customer at its heart, actively earns trust. By keeping content relevant and credible, customers will actively seek out your business and engage with your content. Get it right, and customers will be willing to hear more from brands that appear to be providing help, advice and insights that improve their lives, not simply try to sell them something.

Content pipelines – content marketing builds the complete story. That means it helps move customers through connected, relevant content journeys that ultimately deliver them close to buying. Content needs to be planned as a journey, not a destination. For example, if your business sells insurance, helping a customer know how to drive safely abroad during summer can lead to useful advice articles on renting holiday cars and avoiding fuel scams, which can lead to advice on choosing travel insurance. It’s a logical journey but by building trust at the start of the content pipeline you’ll see more engaged customers who take the journey through to the end.

Need help planning? Read our guide to creating an editorial calendar for content marketing.

The era of content-led pull marketing

The winners are consumers. Not only does GDPR provide a useful raft of rights, tools and access that gives consumers more power over their data and how it is used, it will also see a dramatic – and much-needed – improvement in the quality of marketing content. Rather than rely on lazy pre-ticked opt-ins and ‘buy me’ email campaigns at volume, instead brands are going to need to put the customer truly at the heart of their marketing plans.

Considered, relevant, engaging content marketing means that the skills and approaches that publishers use to give their readers content need to be adopted by businesses if they are to get on the front foot post the launch of GDPR.