First of all, be really clear about what you want to achieve… Are you ‘simply’ aiming for GDPR compliance? Or do you plan to use GDPR as a catalyst for an even deeper overhaul of your supporter relationships, shifting to a model where supporters have genuine choice and control? These are very different things; if we’re being pedantic, you can be GDPR compliant in an instant, if you simply stop communicating with your supporters and delete their data. Catastrophic consequences of course… so we need to move beyond compliance and think about making marketing work in the GDPR-world.
Certainly, one of the cases for an opt-in approach is supporter expectation. With every full-page ad published by CRUK, your supporters are becoming exposed to their opt-in led approach. And as we approach the GDPR deadline, supporter awareness of their consent rights is only likely to grow, and become more protectionist.
The RNLI and CRUK made an early strategic move to opt-in, knowing that being a pioneer would bring benefits to their brand perception and boost their public credibility, in addition to doing the right thing by supporters. It’s probably no coincidence that CRUK have taken an above-the-line approach to consent capture, hoping to secure consent (and capture data) for people who may not even currently be on their database, but who have been impressed by this approach. If you are representing a national brand and want to boost your reputation, it could be tempting to consider the PR benefits of opt-in only. However, we must ask if the time has passed for other organisations to make similar reputational gains via a bold move to opt-in only communications. If you made the decision today, would you enjoy the same respect that RNLI and CRUK have experienced?
Beyond this cynicism, there is of course one very valid argument for a move to opt-in; customer-centricity. There’s a compelling argument that you should respect customer privacy, and only send what they are interested in. But, if you think that supporters don’t want – or value – the comms you are sending today, then why are you sending them? In many contexts, ‘consent’ is used as a proxy for ‘wanted’, and we all know that the key to making customers want your comms is to increase relevancy. Consent won’t increase your relevancy, in fact it could damage it as your entire organisation will suddenly be selecting from a smaller pool of data, so unless you proportionally reduce volume it’s likely that Customer X will match the selection criteria for much wider range of campaigns – some of them inappropriate – now that higher-propensity candidates have opted out.
So, if relevancy is the key factor in supporter-centric communications, there are ways to achieve this without declaring that you will cease all unconsented contact; it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. You can increase relevancy by tightening your contact strategy to reduce the volume of asks and only send the killer ones; you can pay attention to what emails they are opening, and what topics they’re reading about; you can report back on what their support has achieved so far; you can look at what appeals they’ve responded to, and send them related appeals that might align more closely with their interests and passions, you can stop asking them about products that they’ve previously declined.
Unless you need to repair reputational damage or have real reason to believe that supporters are deeply unhappy with your current communications and need to feel empowered, an opt-in only approach may be the fundraising equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Taking steps to increase relevancy however, is more likely to cause the uplift in supporter satisfaction that you’re ultimately aiming for.
It’s important that supporters learn that consent is not the only option, too. It can be equally empowering for them; we will respect their privacy and follow the letter of the law, but we can also be trusted to communicate appropriately and ensure that the absence of an opt-in (so easy to forget!) doesn’t mean they’ll have to miss out on the impact report that they would have loved to receive, or the thank you letter that reassures them their cheque arrived safely.
Of course, beyond these concepts, it’s vital to be pragmatic… If the majority of your supporters have opted-out or are ambivalent, how much ability do you really have to convert them to an opt-in? Is your database full of low-engagement supporters who might not be missed? Or do you have a small but highly engaged base, where even a small reduction in volume would have a significant impact on income? If so, you’ll want to explore every single opportunity to continue communicating (particularly with the ambivalent cohort).
And a final word of warning – if you start on the consent route and get a clear opt-out from a supporter, it can make it very hard later down the line to switch tactics and legitimately start using any of the alternative grounds for contact…