Are consumers getting less creeped out about being tracked online?

Discussion
Photo: @haidutski via Twenty20
Apr 27, 2021
Tom Ryan

While privacy concerns are certainly heightening amid legislation and calls for increased transparency, inhibitions about sharing information for a better online experience may be decreasing at an even faster pace.

A recent survey of more than 5,000 global consumers from Cheetah Digital and Econsultancy shows many common online tracking practices to be considered only slightly more “creepy” than “cool.” These include:

  • Adverts on social media sites based on recent shopping experiences on other sites: 48 percent, “cool”; 52 percent, “creepy”;
  • An email reminder or advert about a product abandoned in an online shopping cart: 46 percent, “cool”; 54 percent, “creepy”;
  • Personalized offers after staying on a brand’s site for more than two minutes:  46 percent, “cool”; 54 percent “creepy”;
  • A chatbot that has access to past purchase history to help with online shopping:  44 percent, “cool”; 56 percent, “creepy”.

One method accepted by the wide majority is offering recommendations based on past purchases: 73 percent, “cool”; 27 percent, “creepy.”

Some practices considered by a wide majority as invasive, or “creepy,” include advertisements that follow them across devices, advertisements related to something they talked about near a smart device, and advertisements from companies they don’t know based on location data.

Surveys continue to show consumers are concerned about companies tracking their data but also wanting a higher level of personalization.

A McKinsey study from 2019 found some 40 percent of U.S. consumers indicating they were not as concerned about the tracking and capturing of their content consumption, purchases, online searches or even usage of their opt-in wristbands (such as Fitbits. More invasive targeting actions were seen as algorithms having full-text access to emails, the use of facial recognition in physical stores and voice recognition devices listening in while connected in homes.

Merkle’s second edition of its Consumer Experience Sentiment Report based on a survey of 1,300 U.S. consumers in March found the percentage of respondents who are uncomfortable sharing personal information, regardless of the benefit, decreased to 23 percent of respondents from 28 percent a year ago. The feeling that personalization makes it easier to find products/services of interest rose to 49 percent from 47 percent.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Are consumers getting more or less concerned about sharing their data in exchange for a better online experience? Will most common personalization approaches become increasingly accepted in the years ahead?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Are consumers more or less concerned? Like many things in retail, it depends."
"I don’t think people are getting used to it. Privacy is a growing, not a declining concern."
"...the discussion of privacy and personalization that’s happening right now between Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Cook has the potential to really shape future applications..."

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24 Comments on "Are consumers getting less creeped out about being tracked online?"


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Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

For better or worse, we are probably getting used to it. The ones that are creepy (like listening in, cross-platforming, etc.) will likely remain creepy for some time. Within in-app/website, knowing you have clicked on an item will become increasingly accepted in the years to come, if it’s not already accepted.

Liza Amlani
BrainTrust

As a consumer who has loosened up concerns on sharing my data, I expect a better online experience from the retailers I shop with.

Customers are well aware that Instagram, Facebook, Google Home, iPhone, and Alexa are all listening to exactly what we are up to and watching our every move so in my opinion, giving Sephora a little bit more of my soul doesn’t seem to bother me as much as it used to.

What bothers me more is when I am targeted by digital marketers and “personalized” ads that don’t apply to me. We know sharing of our data is happening so when retailers don’t get it right, customers notice.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Oh, yes. I have received some very strange ads that missed me as their target by age, gender, weight, other surprising offers. When I get those, I wonder “how can they be so wrong?”

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

I don’t agree. You can get a free app that puts a fence around Facebook. It is well-used.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Used the right way, the personalized experience (from the customer’s data) is appreciated. People know and understand what is happening. It used to be “creepy,” but now it’s expected. What bothers people is when it’s too promotional and the brand is seen as abusive in their aggressive add techniques. It’s just a matter of time before everyone understands how this new form of personalized marketing works.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

It’s one thing to get a notification about something I might not have specifically sought out for myself. It’s downright irritating to be hounded by a brand or retailer about something I do NOT want to buy. I looked. I passed. I passed again on your last eleventeen emails. Enough!

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

Or you read a news or business article and that item appears there as well.

Carol Spieckerman
BrainTrust

Are consumers more or less concerned? Like many things in retail, it depends. Any number of factors called out in the article fall on a spectrum from cool to creepy. There is a generational factor as well. Based on data that an emerging fashion brand recently shared with me, newer generations of shoppers mostly think of all of it as a value exchange between consumers and brands/platforms. Personalization tools and tactics seem to have hit a sweet spot that shifted perception from creepy to cool in many cases. Now it looks like they’re poised to blow right past it.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Creepy used to be a guy lurking and watching you – now it’s an algorithm. My experience of creepy was talking about the crappy Williams Sonoma bar towels I was using, picking up my iPhone to enter William Sonoma and finding that the page that loaded was their bar towels. This isn’t personalization – it’s creepy.

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust
I think ignorance is bliss. When it is a direct value proposition, like, I want to track your browsing behavior on my site so that I can make you better offers, I think most people are fine – as long as the retailer delivers on the “better” part. When you get smacked in the face with the cold reality of someone like Facebook tracking you everywhere, all the time – I thought I was immune and resigned when it came to giving up my privacy, but I have to say, I’m more than happy to revoke permissions from a company not only because they are asking for way too much, but also because they have repeatedly shown that they abuse that data by allowing companies to target racists or to be racist in their targeting, or to drive thousands if not millions of people down disinformation and conspiracy rabbit holes through targeted content. Personalization on the small scale – I think that’s what most consumers think is happening. When they get faced with the reality… Read more »
Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

For me, one of the creepiest things is when I talk about a brand that I’ve never looked up online and then I see ads for that brand appearing in my various feeds. Other things, like ads for brands I have used or reviewed online, are less creepy. However they can become annoying which makes me think ill of the brand and I sometimes try to block the ad – which is the opposite of what the advertiser intended!

DeAnn Campbell
BrainTrust

Younger generations – the digital natives – don’t even think about it. They consider it part of the package, and more often appreciate the benefits of personalization and convenience that tracking can offer. It’s primarily Millennials and older who consider tracking to be creepy, more because it’s overt and noticeable than because they think it’s wrong. After all, we’ve been tracked in stores for decades, we were just blissfully unaware. I believe as AI gets better, the balance between creepy and helpful will smooth out to a universally acceptable level. I do think some regulation is needed to increase awareness, such as requiring a blinking light to go on when a microphone is activated remotely.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

Do you have any data to support this? Because the last time we ran a study, younger generations didn’t like it much better than older ones.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

If one is creeped out, they use various tools to “cover their tracks.” Even in China, there are alternatives to getting around the tracking technology. If those that are creeped do not at least try those tools, are they really concerned or do they think the trade-off is worth it?

I suspect in most surveys like this, moments after someone answers, “I am very concerned about privacy,” that they immediately go online to post, shop, subscribe, send an email or text and open up their lives to the watchers.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

There’s an adage that I like use; “It isn’t a problem, until it is.” Consumers sensitivity to privacy online is fickle. It depends a lot on the headlines and the latest data breach or unethical behavior with customers’ privacy from a beloved brand. Most consumers are not aware of how they’re bring tracked and where that data goes until something pops up on a screen that seems a bit too personal, or feels creepy. I do think the discussion of privacy and personalization that’s happening right now between Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Cook has the potential to really shape future applications in this space.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

I don’t think people are getting used to it. Privacy is a growing, not a declining concern. It’s one thing if you agree to share your data (and signing off on 40-page privacy statements like Nordstrom’s really doesn’t count as “sharing”), but it’s quite another to follow a shopper around the web.

Don’t kid yourselves. This is NOT going away.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Consumers should expect that their every move across digital apps and their desktop is being tracked, measured, and targeted along with a personalized experience. What may have been a shocking or somewhat creepy experience years ago may now have become the norm. Especially as Instagram, TikTok, and Google search algorithms have become more targeted and provide value-added ads and suggested followers.

Consumers have now accepted that their information is being shared. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated it best when asked during a Senate hearing how Facebook remains a free social app. His response was straight and to the point, “we sell ads.”

Liz Crawford
BrainTrust

Usually when you see age splits in the data, the younger consumers are less concerned about privacy issues than the older ones. Of course, this stands to reason – the younger ones don’t remember a world without mobile devices, trackers and CCTV. Exchanging personal info for benefits is normal for them. Being tracked with cookies is a common, laughable experience. For older consumers, whose frame of reference is different, it feels more invasive.

Venky Ramesh
BrainTrust

In our day-to-day life, we find it creepy if someone gets access to our personal information in an unauthorized way and then plays it back to us in a different context. But if we provide the same information to them and provide them the consent to leverage that to offer us a personalized value, then we are delighted. I would think the same behavior applies in retail as well. The customer must be given complete control over what data is being shared and for what purpose, and the benefits have to be clearly told to them. If not, it will always come across as creepy.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Two thoughts:

1) Knowledge is power, but also anxiety and mistrust. People have become more aware of tracking, due both to legal mandates and greater publicity;
2) “Better online experience” remains chimeral. Targeted marketing for the most part continues to use a dragnet approach, far more concerned with the total number of successes than the success rate — i.e., 5 in 10,000 is better than 1 in 100 — which (often) increases unwanted solicitations, sometimes exponentially.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

I see an issue with how many of these surveys are executed. Most consumers do not think about personalization and tracking in the same way as people “in the business.”

Most consumers do not express anxiety about tracking when considered in the context of a 1 to 1 relationship with a brand or retailer. So, being tracked on a retailer’s website for the purpose of personalization and making use of past purchase history makes sense to most consumers. However, if those same consumers suddenly see promotions or other personalized actions based on web browsing on other websites, or social apps, especially if from many days prior, then the creepiness factor surfaces. This is not going away. The survey results may change based on how you ask these questions, but consumers are more privacy-focused than ever, not less. An indicator will be how many iPhone users elect to disable such tracking on their phones with the latest iOS release. That will be a much better measure of sentiment towards tracking.

James Tenser
BrainTrust

Resigned acceptance is not the same thing as an endorsement. Consumers want the benefits of responsive apps that recognize and remember their preferences and deliver information that is curated for relevance. They get overwhelmed with the chore of managing access for each and every online service, so they give in. This is why “opt out” standards and 30-page mandatory user agreements must be outlawed.

I don’t think the problem is “creepiness” so much as outright theft. My personal data should be mine to share or trade in a fair exchange of value. This is a Bill of Rights level issue.

Carlos Arambula
BrainTrust

Convenience and comfort tend to alleviate concerns.

I also believe that personalization will become the price of entry for luxury retailers.

Casey Craig
BrainTrust

A larger percentage of online shopping is done by younger generations who seem to be less concerned about giving up personal information, as long as they get a unique, personalized experience in return.

Think about Amazon. They not only know your email address, phone number, and shipping address, they also know your personal preferences such as food, movies, music, books, etc. Then they are able to use that information to create personalization approaches – which are widely accepted, even if people don’t agree with the data capture itself.

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Braintrust
"Are consumers more or less concerned? Like many things in retail, it depends."
"I don’t think people are getting used to it. Privacy is a growing, not a declining concern."
"...the discussion of privacy and personalization that’s happening right now between Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Cook has the potential to really shape future applications..."

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