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GDPR Means Content Marketing Has to Grow Up

It’s no wonder that visitors are so hesitant to fill out website forms. They know what they’re in for once they do. Endless emails with offers. Multiple “newsletters” filled with self-centered advertisements. Messages from Sales every other day, “just checking in.”

Let’s Be Frank

Some marketers haven’t always been completely above board. Way beyond website forms, the methods marketers have used to collect user information and use to blast out “content” have often been a little underhanded.

Your Audience Has Caught On

By now, people in your target audience know the drill. If they really want your content, savvy visitors employ one of their many workarounds, from using their “junk account” email address to making a mental note to unsubscribe the second they receive your emails.

But why should they have to?

Somehow, marketers came to see it as their unassailable right to reach out to any contacts they have collected at any time with marketing and sales messages. Deep down, we knew this wasn’t the best way to operate. It’s not that effective. Maybe it was an instinct left over from the mass media days.

Enter GDPR

In this climate of uncontrolled use of user data, the European Union decided it was time to regulate. The “General Data Protection Regulation” (that’s quite a mouthful) took effect on May 25 and it has some strong new rules for how personal information can be collected, used, and stored.

These regulations have had an effect on companies already ⎼ you may have seen a flood of “we’ve updated our privacy policy” type emails in your inbox over the past few weeks. GDPR is the reason.

Not the Same Old Same Old

Both the EU and U.S. have existing regulations about data and personal information. So what’s different this time? These rules have teeth.

Tied to these new rules are some enforcement powers that are bound to make any international marketer do a double take. The penalties for breaking them can be as high as four percent of a company’s annual revenue. We’re talking millions, or even billions, of dollars.

annual revenue


It’s clear these regulations are something that companies need to take seriously. But what do the new rules actually say?

At their core, the General Data Protection Regulations are about three ideas:

  1. Users should know exactly what they are going to receive in return when they give up their contact information or other personal data.
  2. Users should also be able to find out what companies have collected about them, and have control over whether it is kept.
  3. Companies that collect personal data of users should be more transparent about what they collect, why they collect it, and how long they keep it.

Oh, But That’s Just in Europe, Right?

Wrong. GDPR applies to any company that does business in the European Union, has customers in the EU, or stores the personally identifiable data of citizens of the EU. The definition is so broad that these regulations could, in theory, apply to a small tour company in the Midwestern United States that attracts summer tourists from overseas.

Being based in the United States will not necessarily protect you from these regulations.

In other words, marketers will have to change. They need to be more upfront about the kinds of marketing messages users will be sent when they fill out a website form or collect their data by other methods. They will have to keep much better records about how they gathered their contact lists. And they will no longer be able to keep user data forever.

No doubt, this is a big adjustment. It will require significant updates (and already has) to the strategies and technology that run today’s marketing programs.

Good content marketers should see this as an opportunity, not a threat.

Back to the Future (of Content Marketing)

GDPR is going to create a whole new world for content marketing. Or maybe not a new world, but a chance to go back to the start and do things right.

Nearly twenty years ago, back when luminaries like Seth Godin were laying the groundwork for modern marketing, there was a different name for it. I’ll let Seth explain:

“Permission Marketing is personal, anticipated, relevant. It turns strangers into friends and friends into lifetime customers.”

“Permission marketing is just like dating… The Permission Marketer knows that the first date is an opportunity to sell the other person on a second date. Every step along the way has to be interesting, useful and relevant.”

“Nothing good is free, and that goes double for Permission. Acquiring solid, deep permission from targeted customers is an investment.”

That’s right. What we today called Content Marketing was, in a simpler time, called Permission Marketing. As in… earning the trust of your audience to gain their permission to deliver valuable content.

For too many companies, “content marketing” has degraded into thinly disguised push marketing. Instead of offering anything of value, the focus has become driving sales over building relationships. It’s no wonder, then, that audiences are tuned out and wary of engaging.

Today’s marketers could go a long way towards repairing their broken relationship with prospects by going back to the original concept.

Here’s How Content Marketing Grows Up

Instead of focusing on list growth and playing a mass numbers game with lead conversion, marketing organizations should take a deep breath… and slow down a bit. In the long term, quality wins over quantity every time, and customers do business with brands they have a good relationship with, not the one that pushes out the most sales messages.

hand with growing fine

GDPR, with its emphasis on clear, jargon-free language and active opt-ins, creates an opportunity for companies to go back to the drawing board and re-emphasize Seth Godin’s three points on permission marketing:


This is a dangerous term to start with because its meaning has become twisted over time to be more related to inserting a contact’s name in mass emails or showing ads based on a person’s identified preferences.

Instead, marketers need to find their altruistic impulses and focus on delivering value at each point of communication instead of self-centered sales messages. That value needs to be, yes, of personal interest to your audience. But this is vastly different than merely identifying an audience of “tech enthusiasts” or “frequent travelers” to run ads to.

So, what do your prospects value? Whether talking to businesses or consumers, we’re all human. And humans are driven by certain common needs and wants.

A couple of years ago, researchers at Bain & Company put together a hierarchy of what customers want. They call it the “Elements of Value” and it is organized pretty much like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

elements pyramid

The different levels of the pyramid represent an increasing depth of connection between a customer and brand, with icons showing attributes of value at each.

Using the attributes above, relate them back to your product or service. How can you grow your relationship by delivering content that helps the person become more fulfilled through interaction with your brand?


Connected to personalization is the relevance of your content, or what I like to call the “who cares?” factor. There are companies still today whose approach to lead nurturing is to acquire a contact and then blast them with series of emails and ads that talk all about themselves. Wrong move.

Instead, every time you consider a piece of content to put in front of your buyers, put yourself in their shoes first. Ask “so what?”

If you were your customer, in their busy life full of distractions, would you care about that content? If the answer is no, keep looking for something better.

No, your contacts don’t care whether you have many different services, that you really want them to contact you, and so on.

Talk about what your audience cares about. Give them something interesting, educational, even fun to engage with.


Lastly, once you have the first two items above nailed down, you can achieve this one. Anticipation in this context means that your audience is not just tolerating your content, but looking forward to receiving it. This is the content marketer’s state of nirvana.

We’ve all experienced that feeling of having a message put in front of you that you don’t necessarily want but you don’t feel strongly enough to do anything other than ignoring it. Don’t be that brand.

Back when Seth Godin coined these three attributes of Permission Marketing, he was probably thinking mainly of email marketing or perhaps blogging. Content delivery now can take many different forms, but the idea is the same.

Does anticipation mean that you need to publish on a set schedule? It can’t hurt, but it’s better to be good than be on time.

Wherever your audience likes to engage, they should be excited to see your content.

It’s Time to Be Good

Instead of blasting messages out to a mostly disinterested audience, GDPR provides the opportunity to things differently. The fact that users will have to actively opt-in to receiving a clearly defined set of content means they won’t join your lists unless what you have is truly compelling.

The days of being sneaky or coercive about “getting that email” so you can do whatever you want with it are over.

It’s time to hone in on what your audience wants to read, see and experience – from the start. Or, you’ll lose them.

Wait, What?

Lose them? That’s right. One part of GDPR that I haven’t touched on is its concept of periodic “re-opt-ins.” In other words, if your contacts haven’t interacted with your brand in a decent amount of time, they need to be purged from your contact lists.

This is tied to a related rule that we mentioned earlier: personal data can’t simply be stored forever. Each organization needs to decide how long it will retain their data records, and be able to back that decision up with a rationale of why it is in the contact’s (not yours!) best interest to have that period of data retention.

In other words, if your brand isn’t connecting enough to get repeated interaction over time, your contact lists will fade away.

Be Interesting Or Go Home

In the end, marketers have been presented with a choice. We can keep going the way things are, and lose credibility and relevance with our audience. We can ignore new regulations and stubbornly refuse to adapt to what users want.

That’s certainly one option.

OR, we can realize that new rule structures like the ones in GDPR are a reaction to legitimate changes in the marketplace.

We can recommit ourselves to being true content marketers and focus on the long term, and on the strength of customer relationships built on mutual trust.

That’s the opportunity in front of us today. I, for one, hope we take advantage.

*All quotes by Seth Godin from Permission Marketing, 1999