No one is opening those emails about privacy updates, and marketers are getting nervous

Key Points
  • The GDPR requires companies to send emails to people on their mailing list who have never bought anything, asking permission to keep emailing them.
  • Most Americans are not opening those emails, and some are using them to unsubscribe.
  • As a result, some email marketers stand to lose 80 percent of their marketing lists -- or face huge fines from the EU if they keep trying to email these people without permission.
People are ignoring privacy emails
People are ignoring privacy emails

You've probably received a bunch of emails from companies telling you that they're changing their privacy policies, and perhaps asking you for permission to keep sending you email.

And, if you're like most Americans, those emails went straight into the trash.

This is causing a nightmare for companies that rely on email newsletters or offers to gain and retain customers. The email marketing industry is projected to be worth $22.16 billion worldwide by 2025, according to Transparency Market Research, and approximately 82 percent of companies use email marketing, per marketing research firm Ascend2.

"People are not opting back in," says Michael Horn, the director of data science for digital marketing agency Huge. "It's one thing for your customers who don't have a relationship with the brand to decline and not respond, but you're also losing a sales channel."

Internal research from Huge found about 38 percent of Americans are ignoring these emails, and 23 percent have actually used them as an opportunity to unsubscribe. Email marketing firm PostUp has even grimmer stats, estimating that only 25 to 30 percent of recipients globally, and only 15 to 20 percent in the U.S., are opening the emails at all.

"An email that says 'privacy policy updates' is never going to get opened," says PostUp vice president of marketing and product Keith Sibson. "You never read the terms and conditions when you sign up for some website. It depends a lot on how it's being presented to the users and how important the sender is making it sound."

One email marketing firm said some of its clients have lost 80 percent of their email audience because they couldn't get customers to open those emails and say it was OK to keep sending them email. This company asked for anonymity because of confidentiality agreements with its clients.

Why this is happening

These emails are coming because of the General Data Protection Regulation -- better known as GDPR -- a set of European Union privacy regulations that went into effect on May 25.

GDPR: Why everyone is freaking out over four letters
GDPR: Why everyone is freaking out over four letters

Under these regulations, companies are relatively free to send emails to customers who have purchased something from them. But sending email to non-customers is common practice in the email marketing world. A lot of companies ask for email addresses when you visit their web site, even if you don't buy anything. Others buy email lists from third parties.

Now, they all have to ask permission to keep sending emails to non-customers. If an EU citizen does not opt in to keep getting emails, the company may never contact the person again -- or the EU can sue the company for up to 4 percent of its annual revenue.

Although the GDPR rules are only for the EU, European citizens living abroad get the same protections. Companies may not know whether a person living in another country is an EU citizen, so they tend to play it safe. It can also be costly to maintain two sets of rules.

Sibson pointed out U.S.-based companies don't have to get customers to opt in, so his company recommends its clients try to keep two separate lists from those they know are EU customers and those who don't have to be GDPR-compliant.

"We've seen examples of senders losing the majority of their audiences maybe because they've taken a too broad interpretation of GDPR and applied the same logic to every customer," Sibson said.