At recsyslabs we are building AI powered products that provide personalized recommendations to readers without harvesting personal data.
Online content personalization is not a solved problem. People are growing concerned of their data being collected in excess and the usage of it for purposes other than the ones they would think reasonable.
With the following survey, we set to explore people’s experience with personalization and privacy and the viewpoints of different age groups regarding topics such as cookie notices and targeted-ads.
The hypotheses that guide our survey are:
- People enjoy receiving personalized content online
- Privacy online is a concern for different age groups
- People are not aware of how much of their data is collected and/or necessary in exchange for a personalized experience
- People use their own tools to protect themselves online
- There is a need to reach a balance between personalization experiences and privacy protection
Personalization today comes at a huge price, including giving out unnecessary personal information, which is at risk of being exposed in case of data breaches and other unauthorized access. With businesses increasingly incorporating personalization technology, the data and its usage have started getting more attention by users and regulators.
Data breaches and information leak from companies have made privacy a major concern in recent years. Laws, like General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)  and California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) , are in place to strictly govern companies for their usage of customer data . Even when user identities are anonymized, their activities can identify them revealing protected categories such as race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.
We conducted a survey to understand more about consumer behavior, identify user pain points, and to learn about the current state of users accessing digital content in relationship with their privacy concerns.
This is a report of the main findings.
The survey was shared across social media, including LinkedIn, and garnered 270 responses over a period of 1 month during July 2020. 84% of the respondents were millennials and Generation Z, and 16% were over the age of 35.
The results of our recent survey shed light on what readers today really care about when they access media online. The main insights are as follows.
1. Personalization remains a favorite among younger age groups
When asked if they like seeing personalized content recommendations while visiting an online magazine or news media website, 52% of millennial/Gen Z responded that their preference for personalized content is very high, or high (See Figure 1), while this percentage is of 30% in older age groups.
Figure 1. Personalization preference of millennials and Generation Z respondents
2. Privacy, a recurring concern
We asked people whether data privacy is a concern to them and, if so, what aspect(s) of it worries them.
The answers reveal that personal data privacy remains a common concern, with 78% of the respondents worried about their privacy on digital platforms (See Figure 2). The major concerns were that personal data were being collected by apps and websites and being sold/shared to third party apps.
Figure 2. Readers’ thoughts on privacy online
3. More data than necessary collected
When asked if they thought companies collect more or less data from them than required to offer a good personalization experience, our respondents felt that more data was collected than necessary in the name of personalization.
Over 63% of the respondents believed that more than enough data was collected while only 10% agreed that enough data was collected for personalization.
23% did not know how much data was being collected, which leads us to believe that there is little transparency in the relationship between data collection and its use for personalization (See Figure 3).
Figure 3. What readers think about data used in the name of personalization
4. Stop stalking
Cross-website cookie usage was identified as a common privacy concern among many respondents because of targeted advertisements on social media based on browsing patterns. Another common concern was being asked for mandatory sign-ins or unnecessary personal information. We asked readers about a time they felt their privacy was violated and most of the answers centered around targeted ads.
Examples of anonymous responses received from our participants:
“One search for a product results in me being pestered with ads for the same product in all web sites I visit”
“My search results from an e-commerce site shows up on other websites”
“Mostly the ads whenever I search something on chrome appears on my ads, it’s scary like someone is stalking me always”
5. Ad-blockers to the rescue
When asked if they run Ad blockers in their browsers, 62% of the respondents agreed to do so, as well as other tools such as Tor or VPN softwares to preserve privacy (See Figure 4).
Figure 4. Usage of ad-blockers
6. Balance Personalization and Privacy
We asked readers what data they were comfortable sharing and what data was deemed necessary by companies for personalization, and found out that in most cases these two aspects did not overlap. People think companies collect more data than necessary in order to offer personalized experiences online.
Our key takeaway from the survey results is that an ethical balance is required between personalization and privacy with consumers being aware of how their data is used to provide personalized content.
“Companies need to act ethically, but for that to happen, regulations must be put in place by governments. A balance absolutely must be found between innovation and personal privacy.“ – Anonymous respondent
We started our research with a set of hypothesis and our study has shown that
- Millennials and Gen Z readers favor personalization while older groups are still wary of it.
- Privacy online is a concern across all age groups.
- There is no transparency in how the data collected is used for personalization and that more data is collected in the name of personalization.
- People use their own tools to protect themselves online like ad-blockers, VPN and privacy preserving browsers.
- There is a need to reach a balance between personalization experiences and privacy to reap the benefit of both.
People should hold the power in the tech industry, particularly in deciding what data they want to share and how that data is to be used.
With digitalization, publishers and brands have realized they need to become customer centric with their offerings and move away from ad-based monetization that targets user information and cookies. Building trust and transparency have shown to help publishers increase customer loyalty. Regulations such as GDPR and CCPA have made indiscriminate collection dangerous for companies, forcing them to stop or restrict services in some cases. The need to offer personalized recommendations, however, is still on the rise.
As our research shows, people are becoming more aware of the need to safeguard their personal data from being collected in the name of personalization, and of the dangers and implications of exposure. Readers enjoy personalization but expect an experience where they need not worry about their data being misused.
For digital publishers, this opens a new opportunity to engage with their readers through personalization while promising privacy.
Reach out to us for more information on how to increase customer trust and provide personalized experiences without compromising privacy.
At recsyslabs, we are working hard to shift paradigms. We know that recommender systems and personalization technology can be done right yet still offer people a great experience without violating their privacy. We are driven by our mission to build a personalized internet that respects individuals.
-  General Data Protection Regulation – GDPR. https://gdpr-info.eu/ ; Accessed 2020-12-16
-  California Consumer Privacy Act – CCPA. https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180AB375 ; Accessed 2020-12-16
-  Why 2020 is the year of privacy. https://decrypt.co/17846/why-2020-is-the-year-of-privacy ; Accessed 2020-12-16