How should UK businesses handle digital marketing to comply with the GDPR?

In today's digital economy, marketing strategies are increasingly dependent on data. Personal data is the lifeblood of successful digital marketing efforts, powering everything from targeted advertisements to personalised email campaigns. But with great power comes great responsibility – and in the case of personal data, that responsibility is legally enforced by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Navigating the GDPR can be tricky for businesses, particularly those in the marketing sector. How can they ensure they're using data in a way that's both effective for their marketing strategies and compliant with GDPR regulations? Let's delve into some key considerations and practical tips for UK businesses.

Understand the GDPR and its implications for data processing

The GDPR was implemented in 2018, replacing the outdated Data Protection Directive. It was designed to harmonise data privacy laws across Europe, to protect and empower all EU citizens' data privacy and to reshape the way organisations across the region approach data privacy.

The GDPR gives individuals more control over their personal data and forces businesses to be more transparent about how they collect, use, and store this data. Non-compliance with the GDPR can result in hefty fines, reputational damage, and loss of customer trust. Consequently, it is essential for businesses to fully grasp the principles of the GDPR and how it impacts their data processing activities.

Under the GDPR, businesses must have a lawful basis for processing personal data. This could be the necessity of data processing for a contract, compliance with a legal obligation, protection of vital interests, consent, performance of a task carried out in the public interest, or legitimate interests pursued by the business or a third party.

Obtain explicit consent

One of the most significant changes introduced by the GDPR is the requirement for explicit consent. Customers must willingly and unambiguously give their consent for businesses to collect, store, and process their personal data. This marks a significant shift from previous practices where businesses could assume consent unless customers opted out.

It's important to note that consent under the GDPR means active opt-in, not passive acceptance. Pre-ticked boxes or inactivity does not constitute consent. The request for consent must be separate from other terms and conditions, and it must be as easy for customers to withdraw consent as it is to give it. The request must also clearly state how and why the data will be used.

Businesses can demonstrate GDPR compliance by implementing clear consent mechanisms on their websites and digital platforms. For instance, you can use consent banners or pop-ups that inform users about the use of cookies and other tracking technologies, giving them the option to accept or decline.

Respect privacy rights

The GDPR strengthens the rights of individuals in relation to their personal data. Businesses, therefore, need to respect these rights and have mechanisms in place to respond to individuals' requests.

Under the GDPR, individuals have the right to access their personal data, the right to rectify incorrect data, the right to erase their data, the right to restrict processing of their data, the right to data portability, and the right to object to the processing of their data.

It's crucial for your business to have a clear system for handling such requests. This could involve a dedicated email address for data protection inquiries, clear guidelines on how to handle each type of request, and regular training for staff on GDPR compliance.

Ensure security measures are in place

The GDPR requires businesses to implement appropriate technical and organisational measures to ensure and demonstrate that data processing is performed in accordance with the regulation. This includes securing personal data through appropriate security measures.

Businesses should assess their current data security measures and identify any areas that need improvement. This might involve implementing secure user authentication, encrypting sensitive data, and regularly testing and evaluating the effectiveness of these measures.

Incorporate Privacy by Design

The GDPR also introduces the concept of Privacy by Design. This means that businesses should integrate data protection into their processing activities and business practices, from the initial design stage right through the lifecycle.

In practical terms, this might mean considering privacy implications when developing new products, services, or marketing strategies. By anticipating and addressing potential privacy issues in the design process, businesses can minimise data protection risks and build trust with their customers.

In conclusion, GDPR compliance is not a one-time process but an ongoing commitment. By understanding the GDPR, obtaining explicit consent, respecting privacy rights, ensuring security measures, and incorporating Privacy by Design, UK businesses can effectively handle digital marketing while complying with the GDPR.

Regularly Update Your Data Protection Policies and Procedures

In a constantly evolving digital landscape, businesses must ensure they regularly update their data protection policies and procedures in line with GDPR regulations. The GDPR places a strong emphasis on the continual review and improvement of data handling practices, making it an ongoing responsibility rather than a one-time task.

Data protection policies should clearly outline how your business collects, uses, stores, and protects personal data. They should also address how you handle data breaches, which could involve unauthorized access to, or loss of, personal data. In the event of a data breach, businesses have a legal obligation to notify the relevant supervisory authority within 72 hours of becoming aware of it.

Additionally, businesses should have a clear procedure in place for conducting Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs). A DPIA is a process designed to help businesses systematically analyse, identify, and minimise the data protection risks of a project or plan. It is mandatory for any new initiatives that are likely to result in a high risk to the rights and freedoms of data subjects.

Businesses’ privacy policies need to be transparent, easy to understand and readily accessible. This helps build customer trust, demonstrating that you take their privacy seriously and are committed to protecting their data.

Managing Marketing Emails and Social Media

Effective email marketing is fundamental to many businesses' digital marketing strategies. However, to comply with GDPR, businesses must ensure they obtain explicit consent before sending marketing emails. This means having a clear opt-in process, where customers actively agree to receive marketing communications.

Furthermore, businesses must provide a straightforward way for recipients to opt out of receiving further marketing emails. This could be as simple as including an unsubscribe link in the footer of every email. Regularly updating and cleaning your email lists will also ensure you are only contacting those who have given their consent, thereby avoiding potential GDPR breaches.

In terms of social media, while it can be a powerful tool for reaching and engaging with customers, it also presents its own challenges in terms of GDPR compliance. Personal data collected through social media must be handled with the same level of care as any other customer data. This includes ensuring any targeted advertising campaigns are only directed at individuals who have given their explicit consent.


The GDPR has undoubtedly transformed the way UK businesses handle digital marketing. It presents a challenge, but also an opportunity for businesses to foster greater trust and transparency with their customers. By understanding and implementing the principles of the GDPR, businesses can not only avoid hefty fines and reputational damage, but also improve their customer relationships.

In a digital world where data is king, treating it with the respect and protection it deserves is key. From updating data protection policies and conducting DPIAs, to managing email marketing and social media campaigns in line with GDPR, every aspect should be underpinned by a commitment to protecting personal data. GDPR compliance is not a destination, but a journey, requiring ongoing diligence and adaptation to the ever-evolving digital landscape.