Of all the forms of consumer engagement, direct marketing has perhaps had the most to gain from the huge uptake of social media, its type of communication perfectly suited to the new environment. But concerns around data protection and direct marketing are worrying regulators and so a new code of conduct is now to govern direct marketing in the UK.

The UK's data protection head, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham, recently said "Commercial players need to win the trust of suspicious and canny consumers who are fed up with being taken for fools by big brands and big businesses". Is new regulation the answer? There is a strong self regulatory framework through the Direct Marketing Association and its Code. This is enforced through decisions of the Direct Marketing Commission, with statutory backup.  The Code applies to both offline and online direct marketing. In response to concerns around social media in particular, the Code has been amended and a new version came into effect on 18 August 2014.  

The new Code was heavily consulted upon and so may represent a consensus approach of direct marketing best practices. Though the code also applies to B2B marketing, at its heart is the issue of consumer trust. Under what it labels the "hero principle" the Code strongly promotes transparency in dealings with consumers so they understand  that a value exchange is taking place, information on services in exchange for information in the consumer.

The Code's "fundamental redesign" hammers home messages around use of consumers' personal data with sections labelled "respect privacy", and "be diligent with data". These include detailed reminders of the need to comply with current regulation such as the application of PECR rules on unsolicited one to one communications and requirements under the Data Protection Act 1998 but the Code also encourages members to go beyond legislative requirements in the interests of ensuring transparency and fairness. There are explanations of best practices around collection of customer data, whether for research or direct communications, of informing the consumer how and where that data will be used and in terms of using personal data collected by third parties for direct marketing.

Inevitably questions will be raised about whether the new Code goes far enough, when so much of it reinforces rules and practices which have been common for many years. It lacks specific guidance around social media and so leaves the way open for renewed debate about whether social media requires a new approach. But direct marketers will hope that by loudly adopting a new approach and emphasising transparency and trust, the regulators will allow the industry breathing room to develop new best practices.

In a related move, the DMA has published clarifications to some of the ICO's guidance on direct marketing. The revised guidance is considered in detail below by Sally Annereau in Data protection and electronic marketing compliance.