Consumers aren’t hiding any more. They’re waving. At least that’s the received wisdom of marketing’s information age. Tempted by the seductiveness of branded utility, their inhibitions loosened by social media, our audience is only too happy to throw their personal information at us.
But is this picture entirely correct? The research is contradictory on the subject. Last year’s European Commission report into attitudes to information privacy showed both generational and geographical variations in people’s willingness to share personal information with marketers and government bodies alike.
Young digital natives seemed happy to share. Older digital newcomers less so. Brits were relatively content to volunteer information. Germans, with a powerful folk memory of what data can do in the wrong hands, were more guarded.
It’s an interesting study. But the trouble is I’m more sceptical than usual about most of the research in this area. Because I think there are three kinds of bias at work.
The first is methodological. Most of the surveys to date have been conducted online. Ask someone who’s in the process of sharing their opinions online whether they’re happy to share information online, and you’re likely to get something of a predictable answer.
The second is cognitive. As Professor Alessandro Acquisiti of Carnegie Mellon University points out, when deciding whether or not to share data online, there is frequently a form of instant gratification bias at work.
In the heat of the moment, you want that walled garden content (be it a white paper or something more salacious) more than anything in the world. To access it, you’re prepared to give away more data, more readily, than you would be prepared to admit to a researcher in the cold light of day.
The third, and perhaps most important form of bias, is vested interest on the part of the people paying for the research. Commercially, there’s a big upside in proving that people are happy to share their personal information. Conversely, there’s an equally significant political benefit in showing that people are actually quite worried about it.
Data privacy is a wonderfully rich territory for politicians. It combines concern for consumer protection with fears of a Big Brother state in one easily sound-biteable concept. And the pols have had plenty of straws to make hay with. In the last two years alone, we’ve seen Sony’s inadvertent leaking of gamer data, Google’s problems with Street View Wi-Fi sniffing, and Apple’s undisclosed (and since remedied) gathering of personal geo-locational histories. Not to mention last week’s LinkedIn password scare.
In the midst of these multiple biases and vested interests, there’s one piece of research I’m more inclined to take more seriously than others. Partly because it comes from a group of respected academics with no apparent axe to grind. But mostly for the simple reason that the survey was conducted by phone rather than online.
There’s a common presumption that young people are in the vanguard of a new, relaxed approach to data sharing. However, this study, a collaboration between Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania, shows that despite their occasional propensity for drunken Facebook updates, young American adults are actually just as worried about data privacy than their elders and presumed betters.
82% of 18-24 year olds and 84% of 25-34 year olds claim to have refused to give information to a business because it was too personal, or simply didn’t seem necessary. That’s lower than the 88% total for the whole population, but not by much.
This observation is reflected in the number of consumers opting-out of data sharing and direct communications here in the UK. Marketers don’t like to disclose their customer opt-out rates publicly, but an anonymous survey by Royal Mail suggests the figure approaches 60% for some brands.
One figure that is publicly available is the number opting out of sharing their Electoral Roll data. This has grown from 26% in 2004 to 47% in 2011.
What can marketers do to adapt to consumers’ growing data savvy? Inspired by the thinking of Philip Sheldrake, author of last year’s The Business of Influence, I’d like to suggest two alternatives.
The first I’ll call Total Disclosure (partly because it sounds quite sexy, like an unmade Sharon Stone movie). In order to equalise the information playing field between brands and customers, it would mean brands sharing all the individual-level information they hold with each customer – and inviting customers to correct, delete or add to the record.
Of course, user profiles already let customers do this, but only in part. What is not so readily disclosed is the Big Data vapour trail they leave more or less unconsciously as they cruise through the connected – and especially social - world. Overtly levelling with customers about what is collected and used - and giving them control over it - would be a good place to start building trust.
Perhaps more radical is an idea we might call the Personal Data Mart. (This certainly doesn’t sound like it should be a Sharon Stone movie.) Direct marketers have been buying and selling customer data for decades. Maybe it’s time customers themselves got in on the act.
Imagine a scenario in which customers were rewarded not just for their loyalty, but for each data item they provided to a brand. The rewards could come in the form of relationship-based pricing, perhaps even real money.
In a world in which consumers increasingly know the economic value of their data, maybe it’s time for brands to start making that value real.
Rare roast beef on good bread, Plymouth Gin, thunderstorms, Autumn, a long sea voyage.