Data For Good: Nurturing The New Relationship Between Consumers And Their Online Privacy

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How serious are you about online privacy management? As digital citizens, we leave an ever-growing breadcrumb trail of personal data behind us every minute of every day. And through recent years – and recent scandals – this has increasingly troubled us.

In 2013, 56% of internet users were concerned about the internet eroding their personal online privacy. By 2019, this online privacy crisis had climbed to 61%.

Fast-forward to 2020, however, and the pattern has muddied. Some privacy concerns have actually declined in the wake of COVID-19. This is most evident in countries that suffered through the pandemic early on – such as China, Italy, and much of central Europe.

So what’s happened? The threat to online privacy itself hasn’t lessened – if anything, it’s actually increased with contact tracing apps and wider surveillance operating in heavily affected regions.

What’s more, this is unfolding at a crucial time, when government regulation and moves by big tech to safeguard data privacy are challenging the ad industry – an industry largely reliant on user tracking to make money. Now, with Google’s announcement to block 3rd-party cookies from Chrome by 2022, digital marketers must pivot their strategies under a ticking clock.

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Unraveling this trend and figuring out what’s next has many layers. It requires us to look at the increasingly complex relationship we have with our data and how that’s been impacted by the COVID-19.

Fortunately for brands, advertisers, and publishers, the implications are positive. Consumers’ relationship with data privacy is evolving; it’s up to the industry to nurture it in the right way.

Data in the Name of Public Health

It’s difficult to isolate the effects of the pandemic from broader factors shaping data privacy. However, our research shows a more direct link via the demand for data-driven solutions to curb the pandemic: namely, contact tracing.

Numerous apps now allow registered devices to communicate with each other via Bluetooth, logging potential exposures, and notifying individuals if they’re at risk.

This method for contact tracing, while effective, is rife with potential privacy issues because of how sensitive data would be identified, stored, and processed.

But that concern has hardly made a dent in public demand for these apps, whose potential benefits to public health evidently outweigh the privacy risks. Across 18 markets, nearly 3 out of 4 internet users support government contact tracing apps/programs to curb the spread of the virus.

What’s especially striking is that the most privacy-conscious among us are just as likely to support contact tracing apps as the rest.

Aside from the COVID-19, technology’s capacity to improve our health seems to also mediate the usual suspicions. Among all global consumers, 30% say they trust new technology to improve their health. It’s even higher, at 35%, for those with strong privacy behaviors.

It seems that most people are able to relax their fears when they know their data is being used for the public good. But what does this imply for data being used for commercial good, and is there any way the ad space can tap into this mindset shift?

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From Public Good to Personal Benefit

Between the public good and the commercial bottom-line, there is a step: the personal benefit. For an industry grappling with consent laws and opt-outs, emphasizing this step is crucial.

Consumers make decisions every day based on costs vs. benefits. They’ll pay for what they deem to be “worth it” as long as they know the terms. But how do they evaluate when it’s “worth it” to give up on some of their privacy?

Despite GDPR and other efforts, this has been wildly difficult for most people.

In reality, data sharing does provide personal benefits for internet users. It’s what gives us a seamless browsing experience online, keeps ads we see relevant, and lets us take advantage of more tangible things like free wifi or discounts. And, of course, it does come at a cost – the exact terms of which are often murky or difficult to find.

Brands and publishers need to make both of these clear in order to cultivate a more equitable relationship with consumers. When you understand both costs and benefits, you can make a more reasoned choice.

Even the most privacy-conscious ones see the personal benefits of data sharing and are willing to make that exchange. 41% of global consumers prefer to exchange their personal data for free services rather than pay for those services to safeguard their data.

Interestingly, those who say they feel represented in advertising are also more likely than average to be among the data-sharers. This points to the implicit, but often unseen, personal benefits of data sharing. The experience will be inherently more customized, and the knock-on effect is likely a stronger sense of seeing advertising that reflects you. That type of feeling is what brands strive for.

While emphasizing these benefits is key, being transparent about the cost is, ultimately, the other half of the analysis. For the ad space to take advantage of relaxing consumer worries during this period, a new commitment to transparency and clarity, in the long run, will be paramount.

Looking Forward

So what does the future look like? Much of it depends on how the pandemic plays out, leading us to two predictive scenarios.

The future of less online privacy is, in the long run, inevitable, so even if the pandemic subsides, the data movement will not. But developments are likely to be slower and consumer acceptance a more gradual slope. The ad industry will continue to be challenged, as this overall trend will lose some of the initial wind in its sails.

A more long-term struggle to control the virus will recruit data to the battlefield more than ever before. Governments and private industry will increasingly scrape and process personal data for the good of public health. If done right, this will accelerate our acceptance of a new reality of less privacy, with the benefit of better safety and organization. Advertising and marketing only stand to benefit.

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