Opinion: Third Voice - An 'opt-in' direct mail law is only a matter of time

Alex Walsh, head of mailing agents and trade associations, Royal Mail

Direct mail has always been an important channel for charities looking to generate donations.

But change is in the air in the direct marketing industry, and organisations in the charity sector that are keen users of DM channels need to take note. Although consumers currently have the choice to opt out of direct mail, there is a growing feeling within the industry that a change in legislation could be on the horizon - one that will bring mail into line with other channels, resulting in the need for consumers to opt in to receiving such communications.

So how has existing legislation evolved? First, we had the Data Protection Act. This was the direct result of a European Commission data protection directive that set out basic data protection principles but was not prescriptive about how member states should interpret 'consent'. This allowed the UK - unlike most EU countries - to adopt the principle of implied consent for direct mail, with the emphasis instead put on consumers opting out of communication.

Last year saw the introduction of the Privacy in Electronic Communications Regulations, the ruling principle of which is opt-in for electronic channels such as email and SMS. This legislation is the direct result of an EC directive, but the difference this time round was that 'consent' was very tightly defined in the directive and didn't allow the members to interpret it in any way other than as an opt-in form of communication.

From this, we can begin to see a trend towards the harmonisation of legislation for different marketing channels, and the simultaneous tightening of the Government's scope for interpretation of 'consent'.

Many organisations are already using the opt-in approach, and this is being encouraged as good practice by industry bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Marketing and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

So whether it's because your donors will expect it, or because the law says we must, I believe that opt-in will be the accepted approach across all direct marketing media in the near future. The only question, of course, is when?

Exactly how long we have depends on how the industry reacts to the challenges, but if we continue to annoy consumers and legislators with irrelevant and poorly targeted communications, then we can expect a reaction sooner rather than later.

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