May 25 represents a sort of D-Day for global brands. That’s the day the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) goes into effect. 

And when that happens, the sum of our historical interactions with customers and prospects will be tabulated. Our customers will be doing the math; our list members and our website visitors will be making a calculation that amounts to modern marketing’s most chilling moment of truth: the moment global brands must ask customers, “May we continue knowing you?”

New Metric in the Post-GDPR World

A brand’s Net Promoter Score used to be the best leading indicator of business health from the marketing department. In the post-GDPR world, we have a better metric. Let’s call it our Net Decliner Score (NDS) — the percentage of your customers and prospects who decline to grant your brand access to their data.

The higher your brand’s NDS score creeps, the longer your digital marketing department will serve time in the year 1992 — the year email went public and web 1.0 crawled out of its dark spider hole. The transformational tools and technologies that give leading marketers an oar in the revenue stream will be slowly neutered with every increase in a brand’s NDS.

Think of your brand’s Net Decliner Score like an email unsubscribe rate on steroids. Under the GDPR, not only will an opt-out remove a customer from your most valuable digital marketing channel (email), it will also remove that customer from all of your marketing channels and all of your product and service analytics. It vanishes the individual from your brand’s memory.

With the enactment of the GDPR, the EU is coming together to standardize the rights of European citizens to control their personal data. And if history is any indication, the rest of the world will soon follow. At a time when the volume, variety and velocity of marketing data is exploding, the GDPR is telling businesses to put a lid on it. The new law is forcing businesses to rethink their org models, product designs, technology policies, services and, most importantly for marketers, their communications.

Think for a moment about all the ways data-driven marketing has made marketers famous in past couple of decades. Here are some examples:

  • Website content platforms use session data to inform dynamic content targeting that drives conversion rates.
  • Email is our best-performing digital engagement channel because it provides immediate, easy-to-use feedback on what customers value.
  • Account-based marketing is by definition a collection of behavioral data signals tied to corporate IP addresses.
  • Ad retargeting is essentially a data lake that rescued traditional display media from obsolescence.
  • Facebook’s valuation is largely tied to innovative data-driven ad products like Facebook Custom Audiences, built by mapping third-party email lists to Facebook segments.

Marketing data is the fuel that powers our most successful strategies for customer engagement, acquisition, retention and growth. Without it, business will shrink. If you weigh that shrinkage against the potential penalties for violating GDPR (in some cases, fines of up to 4 percent of gross revenue), it becomes clear that the stakes are high.

Related Article: Why GDPR Is the Kick in the Butt Marketers Need

GDPR Targets ‘Adolescent’ Behavior

The paradox of the GDPR (and the fast-follower laws that will no doubt emerge on every continent in the coming years) is that it comes from the assumption that being known online is synonymous with being abused online.

This is largely our fault, marketers.

Learning Opportunities

The internet’s adolescence presented marketers with a perfect chance to earn consumer trust, and we blew it. We had the data. We had the tools. But instead of doing the hard work of segmenting our customers and prospects into small groups who we communicated with only when we had a true value to deliver, we shotgunned them with advertising, we spammed them with email, we spooked them with useless retargeting, we sold their names to the pharmaceutical industry.

We had the opportunity to write this chapter of digital marketing’s adolescence differently but — like adolescents — we didn’t know what it meant to act like an adult.

Instead, we created a landscape described by a 2017 Statista survey revealing that “companies collecting and sharing your personal data online” is the No. 4 concern among U.S. internet users, behind cybercrime such as digital identity theft, cyberattacks and fake news, and just ahead of government surveillance. This puts brands and brand marketers in the same category as National Security Agency operatives, ransomware hackers and cyberterrorists.

Related Article: Marketers, Data Collection and the E-Word: Ethics

How to Improve Your NDS

When I was a teenager, I argued passionately with my father about the way I thought things ought to be: Chores were persecutions, curfews were arbitrary, and house rules were oppression. Ultimately my dad would simply say, “Hey pal, it’s my way or the highway.” With the GDPR, the EU has essentially put adolescent digital marketers on notice: It’s time to grow up.

The pain of complying with the GDPR — of doing the hard work it takes to earn the right to address customers — will be rewarded with marketing outcomes already known to those of us who didn’t need a law to realize good things happen when you engage customers in an even value exchange. The GDPR is telling marketers to build more granular customer segments and develop content and delivery strategies that give people what they need in context. For example, the new law grants individuals a right to an explanation of the “meaningful information about the logic” involved in automated decisions. This will force marketers to pry open the black boxes that drive mindless personalization, and it will force many to ask for the first time “How does this benefit the customer?”

So, let’s take this opportunity — because we must — to focus on delivering experiences that our customers and prospects will want to remember. Because only memorable engagements return business value and prevent customers from exercising their newfound right to be forgotten.

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