GDPR, in effect for 15 months now, has affected the marketing profession—marketing automation, in particular. Though information security and data protection have always been important considerations, they've now only grown in significance.

As a wide-ranging piece of international legislation with clear restrictions on how businesses can and can't use personal information, GDPR has made marketers more sensitive to the needs and preferences of their target audiences.

That's a good thing, overall, but there's no denying that compliance has tipped the balance in favor of prospects and customers, and away from marketers.

Email preference centers have been designed as a means of having the best of both worlds: Prospects and customers get to have control over what communications they receive and can unsubscribe at will; marketers get to send better, more targeted communications.

That said, many marketers don't believe they generate enough actionable data or customer activity to justify the effort and expense.

But with the right awareness, adjustments, and customizations, a preference center can be one of the best tools for creating more lasting and useful relationships with prospects and customers alike.

If you're a marketer, here's how you should use it.

Establish what you need and what you don't need

Preference data can be the only information you have to go on until customers begin browsing, clicking, downloading, and buying—so preference options must help them manage their shopping experiences more effectively.

To help them do that, you need to decide which data you require, and which you don't. If you're just asking for an email address, you can probably get more people into your database at a faster rate. But that means, to some extent, you're sacrificing richness for agility.

A progressive form, one that captures many fields of data while minimizing the threat of process abandonment, is likely to be more effective.

That doesn't mean collecting information that you don't need—five years of address history and old MySpace accounts probably aren't required—but if you're a fashion retailer, for example, it's good to know what preferred colors are, which brands are preferred, and anything else that might help you create tailored, intelligent content and offers.

What you do and don't need will, of course, evolve over time, and must conform to legal requirements as well as commercial ones. To meet both, constantly review your forms and remove any fields you don't need.

Provide options

The easier you can make it for users to convey their preferences, the healthier your database will be.

It's often tempting to make every field mandatory, in the assumption that doing so will lead as many prospects and customers as possible to give you as much information as possible, but the reality is that they'll just as soon opt out. Not everyone you want to do business with wants you to have their phone number, and that's all right. Making form fields optional will allow you to embrace those who are illiberal and liberal with their data, alike.

Providing more options is the most user-friendly way to run your preference center, but that doesn't just mean giving people more ways to opt out of providing information. It can also extend to providing alternatives to unsubscribing: If they don't want to receive a certain kind of email, for example, allow them to stay opted in to everything else. If they want to change their email address, receive fewer communications overall, or only receive one kind of email message, provide those options too.

Make it multiplatform

Ensuring that your preference center works across multiple devices and formats is common sense, but it's still worth pointing out: Some marketers still default to desktop formatting, even as mobile devices become more popular. That usually happens when a preference center was designed before smartphones and tablets became as popular as they are—in itself is an indication that something ought to change.

The desktop experience and the mobile experience should both feel intuitive and easy. If it isn't optimized, work with website and email design teams to optimize it. Using responsive design, you can make sure users see fewer form fields at once when engaging on a smaller screen—without degrading the desktop experience. A social signup can make it quick and easier for mobile users to opt in.

Consider intent

Finally, a preference center should take into account customer profiles and customer intent. If users click "Change Email Address" when they open your message, they should be taken to a screen that allows them to do exactly that without undue hassle; if they want to unsubscribe, they shouldn't need to navigate the entire preference center before finding the option they're after.

Build out different variations based on different behaviors and goals. The aim should be to create a clear, causal link behind what a subscriber intends and what a subscriber does. If they want to change the frequency of communications, they should be able to do so without spending more than a minute on it.

* * *

GDPR is now an entrenched regulation rather than a looming threat. Although it has imposed certain restrictions, it has also, to some extent, clarified how marketers should behave. In that respect, it's been less a punishment than a wake-up call.

For decades we've been talking about putting the customer first; providing a great experience with your email preference center is a way to actually do it.

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image of Jason Lark

Jason Lark is managing director at Celerity, a data-driven marketing agency and systems integrator.

LinkedIn: Jason Lark

Twitter: @nasojlark