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In detail

Why is it important to know the PECR rules before sending electronic mail marketing?

Using electronic mail to communicate your direct marketing messages is a very useful and cost-effective way to grow your business or gain support for your cause. However, many people do find unsolicited electronic mail marketing a nuisance.

It is important to know what the PECR rules are before you start your electronic mail marketing campaign so that you don’t breach PECR. Getting things wrong not only damages trust and confidence in you and your reputation, but in some cases the ICO can also fine you. See the section What happens if we do not comply with PECR when sending marketing by electronic mail? for further information.

This guidance supports and empowers you to use electronic mail marketing to connect with your customers and supporters, while protecting people from unwanted intrusion and nuisance.

What is electronic mail?

Electronic mail is a private message stored for a specific intended recipient to collect. PECR define electronic mail as:

“any text, voice, sound or image message sent over a public electronic communications network which can be stored in the network or in the recipient’s terminal equipment until it is collected by the recipient and includes messages sent using a short message service”

It covers any electronically stored messages, such as:

  • email and text (SMS) messages;
  • picture or video messages;
  • voicemail messages;
  • in-app messages; and
  • direct messaging on social media (ie where you send someone a private message).

The definition is deliberately broad so that it can cover any new forms of electronic mail. Currently, the most commonly used forms of electronic mail are email and text messages. However, this guidance applies to any type of electronic mail.

The definition doesn’t cover online advertising (eg advertisements placed on websites). It also doesn’t cover some types of direct marketing using social media (eg advertising messages shown on news feeds). This is even when organisations target these advertisements to a particular user of the site or platform. This is because the ‘message’ isn’t stored until someone collects it, unlike an email. In the case of a marketing email, it’s sent to the address at a particular time and on a particular date containing specific content. So, for example, even if someone doesn’t access their email account for a month after you sent your marketing email, none of these things would change. The marketing email would stay in the exact same form, waiting for them to collect it.

However, other rules in PECR may still apply even if this type of direct marketing is not electronic mail. For example, if you are using cookies or similar technologies for your online advertising. See our separate guidance on cookies and similar technologies for more information.

Further reading


What is direct marketing?

PECR takes its definition of direct marketing from the Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA 2018). This is because any undefined term within PECR has the same meaning as in the UK data protection regime.

The DPA 2018 says direct marketing means:

“the communication (by whatever means) of advertising or marketing material which is directed to particular individuals”

This definition is broad and covers all types of advertising, marketing or promotional material. It includes:

  • commercial marketing (eg promotion of products and services); and
  • the promotion of aims and ideals (eg fundraising or campaigning).

It covers any means of communication, which means it includes any type of electronic mail marketing.

The definition doesn’t cover electronic mail sent for administrative or customer service purposes. For example, emails to advise changes to terms and conditions or advise someone of a problem with their account. These types of messages are often referred to as “service messages”. They don’t count as direct marketing if you use them purely for administrative purposes. This is because you aren’t advertising or marketing to customers. However, if you include promotional content within your service message, then the message counts as direct marketing. For example, content with the aim of getting your customer to buy more products or increase their donations.

Do we need to know the name of the person we want to send the marketing to for PECR to apply?

You don’t need to know the name of the person you are sending the message to for the electronic mail marketing rules to apply. This is because the rules aren’t limited to electronic mail that involve personal data.

The marketing rules in PECR protect “subscribers”. For example, the customer named on the bill for an internet connection subscription or a telephone line. There are two types of subscribers in PECR:

  • Corporate subscribers are corporate bodies with separate legal status (eg companies, limited liability partnerships, Scottish partnerships).
  • Individual subscribers are people but also include some types of businesses (eg sole traders and some types of partnerships).

Unlike other PECR marketing provisions, some of the rules on electronic mail marketing only apply to individual subscribers. This means that some types of businesses don’t have the same protections when it comes to receiving marketing by electronic mail.

However, the information that you must provide when sending electronic mail marketing applies to both types of subscriber. See the section What information do we need to provide when sending marketing by electronic mail? for more information.

Further reading