Michael Brennan|August 4, 2021

In light of Apple’s high profile commitment to consumer privacy (now being followed by companies including Google) and especially the announcement of the Email Privacy Protection policy and App Tracking Transparency framework, we were keen to explore where consumer attitudes and behaviours are today. Are Apple and the wider industry meaningfully addressing genuine concerns or are they rather pursuing narrow commercial advantage and indulging in Privacy Theatre? 

As such Profusion commissioned a short, nationally representative, UK consumer survey (via Alligator Digital) to ask just these questions. In exploring the topic we also benefit from the additional context provided by the results of the annual ICO consumer tracker (as introduced in the Profusion blog here). 

Data protection and personal privacy have been on the agenda for some years now. The passage of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is credited with playing a key role, and with driving up data protection standards globally. The latest ICO research found that GDPR was indeed playing its intended role in promoting consumer confidence in the handling of their personal data.  

Our own proprietary research showed high levels of awareness, and understanding, of GDPR, with around two thirds of respondents at least somewhat aware, and with some level of understanding of the regulations. Interestingly we found a significant generational gap in the data, with 25-34 year olds 3x as likely to say they are ‘very much’ aware of GDPR compared to those aged 65+ and the same cohort 5x as likely as the over 65s to report ‘complete’ understanding of GDPR. That divergence is at least partly explained by a significant difference between London and the regions of the UK. 

When it comes to the importance of data protection and privacy to UK individuals today we found that 96% of respondents said it was very (66%) or quite (30%) important to them. Interestingly almost 60% of respondents reported that the importance of these issues to them had increased through the pandemic – perhaps as a result of last year’s furore over the test and trace app, and media coverage of a spike in fraudulent activities over the last 18 months. 

Equally we found that 84% of respondents said they welcomed moves to ‘increase choice, control and accountability’ over the use of their personal data in digital marketing (i.e., through regulatory or policy changes). This latter question reveals another generational gap in the data with only 27% of 18-24s saying that they definitely welcome such moves, compared to 67% of those aged 65+. 

Hardcore Privacy Advocates 

Combining the responses to those two questions we can create a cohort of Hardcore Privacy Advocates – those for whom data protection and privacy are very important AND who definitely welcome moves to increase ‘choice, control and accountability’. According to our representative survey this cohort represents almost 4 in 10 of all UK adults, clearly not an insignificant constituency for marketers to be aware of. We can look at this by age group as below: 

The Privacy Paradox? 

But what does this mean in practice, or to put it another way, how do these (claimed) attitudes translate into online behaviours? You’ll be familiar with the idea of a privacy paradox – the gap between our privacy concerns and stated attitudes, and our actual online behaviours. TO what extent do we see this own our own research? 

One way of addressing that question is to see how people are responding to the cookie notices that have proliferated in response to the requirements of GDPR.  

Here we see that 46% of all UK adults will click through a cookie notice as quickly as possible, with a similar share (44%) stating that this hasn’t changed over the three years since GDPR was introduced. Of most interest when it comes to the privacy paradox is the fact that our Hardcore Privacy Advocates are no different to the general population in this regard – despite their stated attitudes. 

The apparent paradox deepens when we see that almost half of our privacy advocates strongly dislike retargeted advertisements, regarding them as creepy. This is a significantly higher share than among the general population (37%) – and yet their cookie notice behaviours are no different. 

Overall then 70% of respondents reported disliking (strongly/slightly) retargeted advertising (but note that more than 1 in 5 18-34 year olds said they really like them).  

These findings are broadly consistent with other research in the field including this recent survey commissioned by Cheetah Digital, that asked international consumers which digital advertising practices were cool and which were creepy

We also asked our respondents about their attitudes to the widespread practice of social listening, something practiced and valued by marketers for at least a decade. Here we found that only around a third of respondents had any awareness of the practice – suggesting a transparency gap – and also that 44% believe the practice to be a violation of their privacy, rising to 63% of our privacy advocates. 

As such we start to see a picture of passive anxiety emerge. Despite their significant concerns around digital practices, consumers are not willing to (take the time to) mitigate the risks to their privacy and personal data.  

This is consistent with other UK research including from the DMA, which in 2018 reported that the Data Unconcerned were the fastest growing audience segment while the Data Pragmatists were the largest segment overall. Together they accounted for 75% of the UK audience.  

Equally research from Which? The Consumers Association showed that while the Data Concerned and Data Anxious were their top two attitudinal segments, there was a significant misalignment with behaviours – such that the Anxious Maximisers were the fastest growing audience overall. 

For Robert Solove, a seminal thinker on contemporary issues of privacy, this is all perfectly rational, and therefore the privacy paradox is an illusion.  Solove’s argument rests on recognition of the futility of privacy self-management. What is required instead is to shift the onus away from the individual consumer and toward the organisations collecting our data 

And yet in our individualised age, DMA research showed that 48% of UK consumers believe they should have the ultimate responsibility for their data security – compared to 10% for government an 7% business. Which is perhaps an implicit recognition of the value exchange involved and the personal judgements that we all have to make. 

Email privacy protection 

Returning to our survey, we went on to discuss the issue of marketing emails, as directly addressed by the new Email Privacy Protection policy. 

Our first finding was that only a minority of respondents had a clear read on how many marketing emails they received, with only around 1 in 3 confident that the majority were from organisations they currently dealt with. In this space the action required to manage emails could not be simpler – hit unsubscribe when you no longer want to receive them. So are UK consumers doing that regularly? 

Here we find a relatively high level of positive action with over 80% claiming to unsubscribe ‘from emails that are no longer of interest’ at least sometimes. And the most frequent reasons for unsubscribing?  

Perhaps unsurprisingly the number one reason is the volume of marketing emails received, which goes some way to explaining the difficulty in identifying how many emails are being received (despite 60% receiving emails from less than 20 organisations).  

In fact the top two reasons for unsubscribing from marketing emails are exactly the same as the two things that UK respondents dislike most about all marketing communications – too high a frequency and too little personal relevance. 

When we asked consumers what they thought of the established practice of tracking email opens we found that a significant minority saw this as a violation 

And yet when we went on to ask to what extent respondents understood why marketers might value this information, or in what ways they would reasonably expect marketers to use this information we found a relatively high level of understanding, especially among older respondents. 

This reasonable expectation point is important as it mirrors the language of GDPR, specifically in the context of the balancing test between individual rights and an organisation’s legitimate interests. 

It is also important when we consider the nature of the value exchange that is implicit in so much of this discussion. UK consumers told us that what they most like about marketing communications are personalised offers/discounts (53%). 

When evaluating the possible impact of the Apple policy proposal, some commentators have suggested that marketers will increase the frequency of messaging and default to generic messaging. Given what we learnt above about the reasons to unsubscribe from marketing emails we were keen to hear what respondents thought of those outcomes. 

Here we can see a significant difference with a significant majority willing to accept standardised, generic, messages, if only reluctantly, while only a minority would be willing to receive a higher volume of emails. 

As such it is clear that email marketers are going to have raise their game in response to these changes. Our data makes it clear that simply doubling down on email volumes is not a sustainable approach. We would argue that marketers will have to adopt more meaningful, and less vanity, metrics while working to improve the personalisation of content and promotions. 

In this way we can drive up the share of consumers who are regularly reading our emails – our survey showed only 8% saying they read their marketing emails ‘most times’ with a further 26% reading them ‘sometimes’ and 22% ‘occasionally’ – and maximise click throughs and of course revenues. 

A final point on the Apple policy. We asked respondents if they would rather a more granular, case-by-case, approach that that being proposed by Apple. 31% said yes definitely and a further 41% said ‘yes, that sounds better’. We know that this is unlikely to slow the Apple privacy juggernaut, and also in light of Robert Solove’s argument may simply add to the consumer burden while offering little in the way of data protection. 

And to close this article on an upbeat tone, it’s important to remember that email remains consumers preferred channel for marketing communications – across all age groups. For all the frequent criticism of email marketing it offers advantages to consumers that are simply not available elsewhere. 

Thank you.

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