Are you willing to bet 20 million euros that the latest email you sent was fully GDPR compliant? 

The European Commission has recently introduced an update to GDPR to meet the emerging challenges of the digital market. And while both businesses and individuals will likely benefit from the changes, the new layer of uncertainty makes the digital landscape buzz about GDPR email compliance once again.

This increased focus on email data protection is not just a bureaucratic hurdle; it's an opportunity to build trust and refine the precision of digital marketing strategies.

Keep reading to learn how to not just survive but thrive in an era of heightened data awareness and keep your email GDPR compliant with Pushwoosh

If you feel confident in your email marketing regulations’ expertise, feel free to skip straight to the step-by-step guide on maintaining GDPR compliance in email marketing.

And if you could use a brief recap of the key definitions and principles of GDPR, check out the FAQ section.

In this article
How to keep your email GDPR compliant: 10 proven practices and tips 1. Ensure your email service provider is GDPR-compliant 2. Prioritize email consent under GDPR 3. Avoid most frequent email consent mistakes under GDPR 4. Enable double opt-in for better GDPR compliance 5. Make the opt-out process straightforward and accessible 6. Enable email churn recovery with email sunsetting 7. Keep consistent records of personal data processing activities 8. Keep your Terms & Conditions clear and transparent to meet GDPR email requirements 9. Pay close attention to your email management practices 10. Review your GDPR email consent practices regularly
Don’t forget about other cross-border data privacy laws and regulations
GDPR beyond email marketing
GDPR compliance FAQ: Everything you need to know What is GDPR? Who needs to adhere to GDPR? What if I fail to comply with GDPR? What are the seven core principles of GDPR compliance? How does GDPR apply to transactional emails?

How to maintain GDPR email compliance: A step-by-step guide

We tend to pay extra attention to staying GDPR compliant when talking about email marketing. After all, that’s when you collect, process, and work with customers’ personal information the most.

There are many things to keep in mind when crafting a GDPR-compliant email marketing strategy. Yet they all start with a single most important advice:  

1. Choose a reliable email service provider

It doesn’t matter how many sleepless nights you’ve spent trying to wrap your head around the latest GDPR update if your ESP doesn’t care. 

Selecting a reliable email service provider is crucial because the right one will ensure that your email campaigns comply with GDPR from the outset. And the wrong one can very much become your organization’s undoing.

An important feature to look for in a provider is their ability to demonstrate compliance with GDPR's requirements on data protection and breach notifications. Evaluate their security measures, user data handling policies, and the compliance tools they offer.

Obtaining explicit user consent is not just a legal formality; it's a fundamental user right under GDPR. 

It’s in your best interest to make the process of obtaining this consent as straightforward and clear for the user as possible. What’s more, the consent form should be presented in an unambiguous manner.

Just like the lack of a “no” does not under any circumstances imply an automatic “yes”, a pre-ticked checkbox most definitely does not imply active consent.

The wrong and right approach to asking for user consent in a lead generation form

Notice how such a small difference as pre-filled consent can severely impact your lead gen form’s GDPR compliance. A user should willingly complete the action of expressing consent (AKA clicking on the checkbox) for it to be considered an active opt-in. 

3. Avoid these common email consent mistakes under GDPR

Email marketing under GDPR can be tricky, and slipping up on consent can land businesses in hot water. Here's how you can dodge some common consent pitfalls:

  • Never assume consent: Permission to email can't be presumed. Only send emails if users have explicitly opted in.
  • Consent is not transferable: You can't email contacts for different purposes than they agreed to without getting a new nod from them.
  • Do not offer financial incentives: Consent has to be "freely given, specific, informed, and unambiguous." Tying user consent to a discount or any other financial perk blurs the line of it being “voluntarily given”, potentially violating GDPR. 
  • Your email list is yours alone: Don't sell or swap it without explicit permission from the folks on the list.
  • Avoid unsolicited emails: Unless it's something they've signed up for or you're required to send it by law – don't send it.
  • Refresh or remove outdated consents: For dormant subscribers, you might want to reconfirm their consent before sending a marketing communication again.

Remember, keeping your subscribers informed and engaged with clear consent practices not only complies with the GDPR but also builds trust and improves the quality of your email campaigns.

4. Don’t be afraid of a double opt-in

Some marketers would gladly climb on the hill of “Reduce the number of steps in your funnel to a minimum” and stay there. And while a reasonable approach most of the time, it’s not necessarily the best one when it comes to GDPR compliance. 

A double opt-in is the most effective and undisputed method of confirming a user's consent is deliberate and verifying their personal data at the same time. It also helps prevent accidental sign-ups and ensures that your email list is high quality.

📚 For example, users who fill in a lead gen form to access an ebook may not necessarily want to receive more educational content from you in the future. You can double-check their interest by asking for a confirmation in the first email.

Yes, it may discourage some users from subscribing to your newsletters, but at least you will know for sure that the ones who pushed through have done so eagerly.

Email double opt-in example

You can easily set up a double opt-in process like this with some basic automation provided by your ESP. In Pushwoosh, for example, you can do it in just a few clicks with our visual Customer Journey Builder – just select a form you’d like to feature a double opt-in, prepare the confirmational email, and you’re good to go!

With the default 'Email Link Clicked' event, you can track users who have confirmed their opt-in and tag them as email subscribers. They will make a target segment for your future emails.

Email double opt-in flow in Pushwoosh Customer Journey Builder

5. Make the opt-out process clear and easy

That’s right! Giving users a chance to UNsubscribe from your emails is just as important for GDPR as being able to subscribe to them. This may seem counterintuitive but bear with us. 

To introduce a straightforward opt-out process, pay extra attention to accessibility. Your “Unsubscribe” button and “Subscription preferences” page should be easy to find, and the automation should do exactly as it promises – meaning that when someone chooses to opt out, this contact should be immediately removed from the list. 

Take a look at these two email footers, for example:

Wrong and right ways to feature the unsubscribe button in the email footer

It may seem like a good idea to hide your unsubscribe button behind an image or make it the same color as your footer’s background, but it will do you more harm than good. After all, what would you do if you realized you no longer wish to receive emails from this sender and couldn’t find an easy way out? That’s right – mark them as spam and forget. And that’s probably the last thing you want as a sender. 

6. Embrace email sunsetting

Remember how one of GDPR’s seven principles is data minimization? That’s exactly where email sunsetting comes in. 

Email sunsetting is a strategy of removing subscribers who have not engaged with your emails over a certain period, usually that of a few months. You can set up a dedicated automation flow that will ask unengaged users if they wish to stop receiving emails from you.

Users who click on the link in such an email will be tagged as unsubscribed, and you will exclude them from your emails.

Email sunsetting flow in Pushwoosh Customer Journey Builder

Another way to approach your unengaged email subscribers is to tag them as inactive, add them to a suppression list, and try to get their attention back with a re-engagement campaign later on. This option makes sense if you seek to reduce and prevent user churn.

Email campaign to segment out inactive users - flow in Pushwoosh Customer Journey Builder

7. Keep records of data processing activities

By now, you know that keeping your email marketing activities GDPR-compliant is crucial for staying out of trouble, yet different circumstances occur. 

Keeping meticulous records of how and when consent was obtained and processed is critical to proving compliance with GDPR in case you face an audit. Do it consistently and have an easy-to-follow system within your organization. A good customer relationship management (CRM) software can help you track consent. 

8. Remain clear and transparent in Terms and Conditions

Many businesses look at Terms and Conditions (T&Cs) as a loophole from trouble. But the days of fine print, wordy legal sentences, and ambiguous meanings are coming to an end. 

The GDPR aims to foster trust between a brand and its customers and ensures users are fully informed of what they are signing up for. Implementing this means re-evaluating and possibly rewriting T&Cs to be more understandable. 

Here are some ways you could make your email more GDPR-compliant when it comes to T&Cs:

  • Consider using plain English instead of complex legal structures
  • Make your T&Cs easily accessible through your website and through your email
  • Link to T&Cs from the contact forms
  • Separate the T&Cs landing page from the Privacy Policy

9. Apply GDPR principles in your daily email management practices

Properly managing email addresses under GDPR is about more than compliance; it's about respecting privacy and building customer loyalty. Fortunately, complying with GDPR in your email management practices also positively affects your domain authority, deliverability, and even performance! 

One of the best email management practices under GDPR involves segmenting email lists based on explicit consent and only sending relevant communications. For example, you could categorize your contact list based on the type of content each group has consented to receive, allowing for personalized and compliant email campaigns. 

As such, if some users only signed up for ebooks – don’t add them to a newsletter contact list. It won’t penalize you for violating GDPR per se, but this approach could significantly boost your customers’ experience and positively affect engagement. 

10. Review your consent practices regularly

It’s not enough to track consent to remain GDPR compliant. You should keep a close eye on any changes introduced to the regulations. Consider conducting periodic audits to ensure all consent mechanisms are up to date and comply with current guidelines.

Don’t forget about CAN-SPAM, CASL, and CPRA

While paramount for any business dealing with customers from the EU, GDPR is by far not the only regulation you should care about. And to remain compliant with all of them, you should clearly understand the overlaps and differences between them all. 

CAN-SPAM Act, CASL, and CPRA are the most widespread regulations affecting email marketing campaigns. 

GDPR would normally cover the essentials of other regulations, so by aiming for GDPR compliance in your emails, you would hit the mark with the basis of the other privacy laws.

However, we strongly advise you to do your own research and double-check for any other legal requirements you may need to follow to remain compliant in the eyes of international law. 

Okay, with GDPR email requirements out of the way, let’s briefly touch upon other channels affected by the data privacy regulations.

GDPR beyond email: Omnichannel compliance

It is a good digital marketing practice to view your strategy holistically, ensuring that GDPR’s principles are applied consistently, whether dealing with email marketing, push notifications, social media, content marketing, or any other form of customer outreach. 

Basically, as long as you’re interacting with any form of customers’ personal information (email addresses, demographics, behavioral patterns, etc.) – you should remain GDPR compliant

It’s also another area where proper segmentation can come in handy. Consider splitting your consent forms into three distinct categories: email marketing, digital marketing, and direct marketing. This guarantees you an even better user experience!

What about GDPR in offline marketing?

This may come as a surprise, but the influence of GDPR often extends to the offline realm as well. Physical forms of data collection, such as paper-based sign-up forms or in-store feedback, can also be subject to GDPR as long as the information is later digitized. 

The rule of thumb is that once offline data enters the digital environment, it must be treated with the same rigor as data collected online.

FAQ: Everything digital marketers need to know about GDPR

What is GDPR?

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is an official regulation introduced by the European Union in 2018 aiming to improve individuals' personal data protection. The document governs how personal data is handled, distributed, and managed in the digital marketing landscape.

Does it apply to me: Who needs to adhere to GDPR?

The GDPR has a broad scope and isn't limited to businesses within the European Union. It applies to any organization — inside or outside of Europe — that offers goods or services to EU residents or monitors their behavior (e.g. online tracking and profiling). 

🙌 Both data controllers and processors must adhere to GDPR.

Data controllers are organizations that collect and determine the purpose of processing personal data, such as businesses or e-commerce platforms.

Data processors, on the other hand, are entities that process data on behalf of data controllers, providing services like email marketing or data storage. So, a messaging platform like Pushwoosh is a data processor, not a controller in most cases. 

So, if your marketing campaigns reach into the EU, you need to comply with GDPR

What does being GDPR compliant mean for your business?

Being GDPR compliant means you should process personal data lawfully, transparently, and with the necessary consent. We cover it in more detail in the seven principles of GDPR section. 

You must have legitimate purposes for processing personal data and ensure it's only used for those explicit purposes.

🛒 For example, an e-commerce store can collect customers' email addresses to send them order confirmations and track shipping. They also use this data to update customers on new products, discounts, and content based on the customer's previous purchases – as long as the customers have explicitly agreed to such kinds of communications.

If, however, the same store sold their customers’ data to brokers or marketing agencies without the customers’ explicit consent – they’d be directly violating GDPR. 

What are the consequences of failing to comply with GDPR?

GDPR compliance is not just a legal requirement; it's a commitment to respecting individuals' privacy rights and ensuring the responsible handling of their personal data. Data protection authorities (DPAs) can intervene when GDPR breaches occur. They can investigate and enforce corrective measures, such as:

  • Warnings and reprimands: DPAs can issue warnings for first-time or non-intentional non-compliance and reprimands for violating GDPR.
  • Temporary or definitive bans on processing: DPAs can temporarily or permanently restrict an organization from processing any personal data or suspend international data transfers unless an adequate level of protection is ensured.
  • Rectification, restriction, or removal of data: DPAs can order the organization to correct inaccurate data, limit the processing of data, or erase data that violates GDPR principles.
  • Administrative fines: For more serious infringements, DPAs can impose substantial fines. These can be up to €20 million or 4% of the company's total worldwide annual turnover of the preceding financial year, whichever is higher.

The exact nature of the corrective measures would depend on the severity of the GDPR breach.

What are GDPR's seven foundational principles?

The GDPR is built on seven key principles that lay the foundation for effective data protection across the European Union. These principles are not set in stone and should not be treated as a legal reference, but they do act like a set of guidelines that inform the legislation's spirit. 

  1. Lawfulness, Fairness, and Transparency: You must process personal data legally and fairly, ensuring that processing is transparent to the person whose data is being processed (the data subject).
  • Lawfulness means that there is a solid legal basis for processing.
  • Fairness implies that processing won't be detrimental to the data subjects.
  • Transparency indicates that subjects are fully aware of how their data is used.
  1. Purpose limitation: You should only collect personal data for specified, explicit, and legitimate purposes. Any use of personal data outside of the purpose specified during the data collection stage would be considered illegitimate. So, if you’ve claimed you will use the email address provided to send discounts and limited-time product offers, do just that – do not add the contact to your blog newsletter list. 
  2. Data minimization: You should only collect and process the necessary personal data for a specific purpose.

For example, don’t ask a data subject for their birthday unless your marketing strategy offers dedicated birthday discounts and special offers.

  1. Accuracy: It is important to take every reasonable step to ensure that the personal data that was provided is, indeed, accurate.

Of course, you can’t be expected to double-check every single contact. Instead, you can send an occasional confirmation request (e.g. via an annual email) to confirm or edit the contact’s personal details available in your system. 

  1. Storage limitation: You can only store personal data for a specified period and immediately remove it after.

A common good practice is to notify a contact once their data is removed.

  1. Integrity and confidentiality: You must process personal data in a way that ensures appropriate security, including protection against unauthorized or unlawful processing, accidental loss, destruction, or damage.

It is up to the data processor to ensure that via appropriate technical and organizational measures. On your end, opt for martech providers that have reliable security protocols enabled and offer additional layers of data security, such as encryption or two-factor authentication

  1. Accountability: The data controller is responsible for and must be able to demonstrate compliance with all the other principles. This involves having clear internal policies, data protection impact assessments, and relevant documentation on how data processing activities comply with the GDPR.

For example, you can read all about our stand on personal data protection in Pushwoosh’s Privacy Policy.

Any business dealing with personal data must understand and implement these principles. They help navigate the complex environment of GDPR restrictions, ensuring that data protection is not an afterthought but a key factor in your business strategy.

How does GDPR apply to transactional emails?

Transactional emails, while necessary, must also respect GDPR. To remain GDPR-compliant in your transactional emails, provide a clear distinction between transactional and promotional content. 

If you have a customer’s personal information from the order they had made on your site, you are not allowed to use that email address for sending marketing communications – you’d need a separate consent form for that.  

☑️ For example, a customer completed a purchase but decided to leave the optional “I agree to receive marketing communications from you” checkbox unticked. You now technically know the customer’s first name, email address, physical address, and phone number. Alas! You still can’t send them any marketing materials (such as newsletters, discounts, or physical flyers) until they explicitly consent to receiving such communications.

Keep your email GDPR compliant with Pushwoosh! 

We’ve briefly touched upon the importance of selecting an ESP that recognizes and adheres to GDPR. Now, what if you had to search for a platform like this for every single marketing channel you use for your strategy?

Pushwoosh provides the tools and guidance necessary to navigate GDPR's requirements, allowing you to focus on creating engaging and effective marketing campaigns across multiple channels within one platform.

You ensure your customers’ data is collected and stored securely. We provide you with the best way to use it for the best business outcomes. Ready to see us in action?