Privacy Engineering

Which Information Do Consumers Most Closely Guard?

Note from the Editor:

This is the fifth in a series of posts by Westerman and Aschenberger exploring the role of trust in the marketplace. Here are the first, second, third and fourth installments. The next post will look at just how closely consumers guard their personal digital data.

We know that consumers don’t always understand how companies collect their data, and that these misconceptions can create a trust gap between retailers and shoppers.

This doesn’t mean that consumers are completely unwilling to share their data with retailers, though. Our team at Create with Context surveyed 800 consumers in the U.S., asking them which information they’d be willing to give up in exchange for 50 percent off of three different items: a gallon of milk, a large-screen television and a new car.

The survey results—which reflect consumer attitudes, rather than actual behavior—show that 97 percent of respondents said they’d be willing to give up at least one piece of data about themselves in exchange for a discount.

But shoppers don’t guard all their information with equal vigilance.

Our research shows that consumers place a significantly higher value on some pieces of personal data than they do on others. Respondents were most likely to share their names with retailers, and least likely to share photos and files stored on their phones—with items like their current location, their credit scores and their fingerprints falling at different points along the spectrum.

When we analyzed the numbers more closely, we discovered that the survey responses sorted into five distinct “clusters” —groups of survey questions that asked about similar types of personal information, each of which a similar number of consumers were willing to share.

Directory Information

The information that consumers were most willing to share in exchange for a discount were—in order—name, phone number, age and address. Consumers were also relatively comfortable sharing their current location, which we included in this cluster. It’s interesting to note that much of this data is traditionally considered personally identifiable information (PII) —and is, therefore, the subject of privacy laws—and yet consumers are least protective of these bits of information. It’s possible that consumers consider this information less sensitive because much of it is readily available in online phone directories, and because they are accustomed to providing this information when signing up for programs like store loyalty cards.

Interests (Offline)  

After basic directory information, the next data points consumers were most comfortable sharing concerned their interests.  We’ve divided the category of “Interests” into offline and online, because respondents were twice as willing to provide their offline interests as they were their online interests. That difference in attitude may signal an inherent apprehension surrounding digital data, since in reality consumers’ online and offline interests are likely to be similar to each other. The survey items that fell into the offline interests cluster included one about what books and magazines consumers read, and a more general item about “what your interests are.”

Interests (Online)  

This cluster is composed of questions about what consumers buy, what they search for online and which apps they use on their phones and when. Again, it’s interesting to note that consumers were only half as likely to share this information as they were their offline interests.

Sensitive/Financial Information  

Consumers were understandably apprehensive about sharing data in this cluster, which includes items like their incomes, their credit scores, their passport photos and their fingerprints. In every cluster, consumers were more willing to share information for a discount on the big-ticket items like a large-screen television and a new car than they were for a couple of dollars off a gallon of milk. But the increase in consumers willing to share information for the new-car discount was especially large in this cluster, perhaps because people are accustomed to giving access to their incomes and credit scores when financing a vehicle. This may suggest that consumers are more comfortable giving their information in scenarios where they’ve done so in the past, or when they see a clear rationale for doing so.

Personal Digital Data

This is the cluster of data that consumers guarded most closely, and it includes info such as where they’ve been, their phone’s address book, e-mail messages they’ve sent and received, pictures and files stored on their phones and their social networking connections. Consumers were five times less likely to share this type of information than they were basic directory information like their names and addresses.

In our next post, we’ll look at just how closely consumers guard their personal digital data.

About the Author

Ilana Westerman is CEO of Create with Context, Inc., a leading digital strategy consulting firm. For the past 15 years, she has championed the role of people plus context as key drivers behind the design of innovative technology solutions, helping ensure that digital products and services align with human needs, goals and desires.

Westerman began working on digital innovation in the mid-1990s, including award-winning work on the IBM Nagano Olympics web presence. Then, as one of the early members of Yahoo!, she helped build the Yahoo! User Experience team, leading R&D teams for key Yahoo! properties. She now serves as CEO at Create with Context which, under her leadership, has seen significant growth since its inception in 2005.

See all posts by Ilana Westerman

Gabriela is a design researcher at Create with Context. Her interest lies on understanding consumers’ mindset, their behaviors, needs and desires, to develop services and product concepts that enhance user experience and create new business models. She is an MBA in Design Strategy candidate at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, which is recognized as one of the leading innovation degrees in the world.

See all posts by Gabriela Aschenberger

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