Consumers may be savvier, less fearful about online privacy and advertising than you think

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Consumers are as worried about online privacy as they are about terrorism, but marketers tracking their surfing habits or mining their emails for insights is the least of their worries, according to a survey by McCann Truth Central.

The shop, a unit of advertising giant McCann World Group, combined a 6,525-person quantitative study, conducted in the US and five other markets, with qualitative research from 12 markets for its Truth About Privacy study. The study found widespread anxiety about the reputational and financial threats posed by tech-driven erosion of personal privacy, but consumers were surprisingly aware and accepting of the use of personal data, including the text of emails, to serve up targeted ads online. And pharma ranks among the industries respondents trust most to safeguard their personal data and use it wisely – behind only banks, credit card and medical companies.

Globally, 75% of respondents agreed that “people share far too much personal information online these days.” That sentiment, said McCann, is being driven by a realignment of privacy norms based on four forces: technology, the role of social networking in civic life, the rise of the omnipresent, let-it-all-hang-out celebrity culture and “the end of embarrassment.” It's also fed by the increasingly normative, if somewhat guiltily voyeuristic, practice of Google- or Facebook-stalking, perusing online information on everyone from close friends to friends of friends to business contacts.

“In a world where more and more people are searching for information about us online, we need to devote more time to managing our online brand (or multiple online brands),” reads the study's executive summary. “People describe needing to separate the ‘virtuous me' that is suitable for family and employers from the ‘popular me' which we must project to friends and social acquaintances that we seek to impress.”

In the main, however, consumers are worried about safeguarding their reputations and their finances online, not about prying marketing bots. Sixty-five percent of respondents said they were aware of companies tracking websites and recording personal preferences for marketing purposes, and almost half (44%) were aware that free email programs often analyze emails for interest-based advertising. Many, said McCann, expressed positivity towards interest-based advertising, and some even said they game the system. One man in the US said he emailed himself about an appliance he was shopping for in order to draw relevant banner ads.

McCann grouped respondents into five categories: Savvy Shoppers (37% of Americans), who are game for contextual advertising but want security certificates and discounts in return; Sunny Sharers (11% in the US), who are protective of their financial data and data that could impact their reputations, but are overall gung-ho to share info online; Eager Extroverts (9% in the US), who love mobile and social media but worry about loss of reputation due to online activities; Cautious Communicators (7% in the US), who dislike mailings, messages and other forms of frequent contact and want to know exactly how their data will be used; and Walled Worriers (36% in the US), who distrust businesses and require assurances that data collection is minimal and won't be shared with third parties when receiving news or offers through email.

What consumers want to see on privacy boils down to “Four Cs of Trust,” said McCann – Control over what they share, a Choice on how their data will be used, a Commitment from companies that they won't pass data on to third parties and Compensation, an understanding of how they will benefit from sharing data.

Over half of respondents (55%) said it's most important to them that the company doesn't pass on their data to third parties and that they know exactly how their data's being used (51%), while 50% said it's most important that they can control exactly which pieces of info they share and don't share. Smaller numbers prioritized that websites have a security certificate (43%), that they have a clear understanding of how they'll benefit from giving up data (31%), that the company be well-known (29%), have an easy to read privacy policy (26%) and wipe collected consumer info every six months (20%).
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