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GDPR: Creating a world where everyone is a publisher

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Wright Studio)

Despite short term pain for email marketers, GDPR is net positive for the UK’s economy long-term, because it signals a turning point from push marketing to permission-marketing,  forcing everyone to think like a publisher.

I say longer-term, because old habits die hard. Today’s media is still driven by pre-digital thinking, where scale mattered most. The growth of the web and the arrival of digital TV and radio created more choice as to where to get content,  but while audiences for individual publishers and channels fragmented holding companies consolidated to retain reach and power.

The birth of the monopoly platforms, Google in search, Facebook in social, created new front doors for content. By scooping up all the advertising revenue they’ve built enormous power - and governments have thus far been unable to regulate these new monopolies. Short term, Google, Facebook and Amazon will gain from GDPR, with their ownership of the audience and the financial and legal means to skirt around legislation.

Outside the platforms, email remains the killer app in direct-to-customer communications, as it’s the only way we can reliably be reached online outside Facebook’s growing digital empire of Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook itself. But as an ancient and unloved technology - email is an endangered digital species that only exists because of a lack of credible alternatives. GDPR delivers a further blow as marketing people tip even more money into Facebook and Google to reach us online.

Even now there’s no protocol that allows citizens, to host our identities online and use it to communicate our intent to the world. In The Intention Economy, Amercian author Doc Searls refers to an emerging movement called Vendor Relationship Management (VRM), a corollary to the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platforms businesses use to capture and hold data on customers. The idea is the means will emerge for us to take control of our own data and monetise it in real time. Perhaps. But do we trust big business or governments to come up with the answer? Depending on your point of view that’s the lesser of two evils.

As individuals, our data remains virtually valueless on its own, yet hugely valuable in aggregate. The biggest surprise from Cambridge Analytica was the surprise itself - businesses and institutions have been second-guessing and manipulating us for years based on the data we freely give them. This laissez-faire attitude to data has allowed US platform giants to profit from surveillance marketing: tracking us online to build profiles, and leveraging them in aggregate to sell advertising. As long as advertising remains the primary revenue stream for our digital economy, I can’t see that changing.

But I’m an optimist. The GDPR, and tech-lash that surrounds it, has signalled to companies and citizens that the platform giants cannot be trusted, and I expect more brands to invest in direct trust-first permission-based community relationships.

Being a publisher

British music set a template. In 2001, having grown a huge fan base, Marillion - by then a brand in their own right - went direct to their community to fund their Anoraknophobia (opens in new tab) record independently; widely thought to be the world’s first crowdfunded album. In 2007, Radiohead repeated the trick with a direct ‘pay what you want’ model to fund In Rainbows.

Initially, I set up Disciple to help my own label reach and engage its own fan community; a model we later extended to artists like the Rolling Stones, then social media stars, and now publishers, businesses, institutions and MPs - including our own digital secretary of state Matt Hancock. (opens in new tab)

The bigger idea is that all single-interest communities will start to act like publishers: providing content, services and experiences that community wants. In Harvard Business Review (opens in new tab), Mark Bonchek describes this shift from ‘purchase brands’, built on utility, to ‘usage brands’, with whom we maintain an ongoing relationship. Red Bull set the standard for brands-as-publishers (opens in new tab) but any entity with a following can use community platforms to build direct relationships, independent of social networks.

What about Facebook? In February 2017 Mark Zuckerberg framed its mission as building a ‘global community’, but as Jamie Bartlett points out in The People vs Tech this is a contradiction in terms - "communities are, by nature, local", built around a single points of interest and not "abstract groups of a billion virtually connected avatars".

The answer lies in independent communities, bound by a single point of interest, taking control of their own media to become micro-publishers in their own right. So, yes, in the short term GDPR will favour the platforms, but in the medium term it will prompt more communities to take back control of their own data, and use it to move from surveillance-marketing to permission-marketing by building trust, and deeper, more valuable relationships.

Benji Vaughan, founder and CEO, Disciple (opens in new tab)
Image source: Shutterstock/Wright Studio

Benji Vaughan is founder and CEO of UK community platform Disciple. Formerly a musician and record producer, he grew so frustrated with the business model of social media and the state of owned media, that he decided to build his own.