Skip Fidura: Opt-in vs opt-out... Is it really either/or?

The chair of the DMA's responsible marketing committee says that choosing which direct marketing policy to adopt is not a straightforward choice for charities

Skip Fidura
Skip Fidura

We all know the tragic story of Olive Cooke and some of the fundraising horror stories that, though less tragic and high profile, nevertheless have had a tremendous impact on the third sector’s reputation. This damage has affected the ability of charities to raise money as a whole for the great work they do, not to mention the lasting effect on those organisations implicated in the headlines.

For all fundraisers and marketers, the world has fundamentally changed as consumers have become much more savvy about where, when and why they share their data. The rationalisation that charities are allowed to play slightly looser with personal data because of the good work they do is simply not good enough any more. The good news is that I think most charities have recognised this and have started to change their ways by working within the codes of practice, such as the DMA Code, and the best-practice guidelines the industry has to offer.

But what is best practice when it comes to opt-in and opt-out? Clearly, the best practice for all marketing would be opt-in, but such a shift would probably lead to a significant fall in revenue, driving many good and reputable companies and charities to close their doors. Suffice to say that not all organisations could adopt this as best practice, so they must find what best practice is for them and their supporters. In fact, during a recent webinar we discussed this point with one of the first charities to move to all opt-in communications, the RNLI. 

Not quite as simple as just opting-in

A number of charities have now made very public moves to an opt-in-only regime, but their journey to this point has rarely been smooth. In fact, most have gone into it understanding that they are going to lose a significant proportion of their supporters and, as a by-product, the money they are able to raise. 

The big concern for many is this loss and whether their organisations will be able to continue and re-grow the potential loss of support. Another issue is the IT and technological challenges organisations face in trying to track whether or not they have the correct opt-ins for new or existing supporters over the various channels they use.

Another challenge, and one faced by the RNLI, is that some supporters might not understand they need to opt back in, assuming that their previous strong support for a given charity meant they didn’t need to opt-in "again". However, being conscious of these issues meant that the RNLI’s own conservative estimate of 255,000 donors opting back in was nearly doubled, with 450,000 re-engaging with the charity.

The case for opt-out

However, not all the cases that were highlighted in the exposés of the past few years have concerned whether a supporter was acquired by opt-in or opt-out. Lest we forget, opted-in marketing communications can still be bad. What really matters is ensuring charities are honest and transparent, and give people control. 

For example, a charity that contacts its database to explain that it would like to keep in touch and asking them for their communication channel preferences offers the supporter control and the charity the ability to better target its communications to the channel each supporter prefers. It also means supporters will not be contacted through channels in which they object to such communications.

What charities need to get right is their data collection statements and privacy policies. Charities should not hide what they do with data, but make it very clear so donors are in no doubt. All charities should be able to behave in a manner that we, as individuals, would reasonably expect. For example, keeping in touch with previous donors who might not have opted-in through a direct mail message at Christmas to update them on the year of great work might well be appreciated. The key is to ensure supporters also have a clear ability to report if they no longer want to receive these messages at all.

Ultimately, opt-out should not be seen as a dirty word. Whether you have plans to move completely opt-in across all channels or to continue with a mix of consents depending on the channel, the key is ensuring your supporters have the respect and control they deserve.

Skip Fidura, chair of the DMA’s responsible marketing committee and client services director at dotmailer

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