Trading information for ads, discounts and coupons

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How comfortable, exactly, are online users with their information and online browsing habits being used to track their behaviour and serve ads to them?

A survey of Canadian respondents, conducted by TNS Facts and reported by the Canadian Marketing Association, reports that a large number of Canadians and Americans “(69% and 67% respectively) are aware that when they are online their browsing behaviour may be captured by third parties for advertising purposes.”

That doesn’t mean they are comfortable with the practice. The same survey notes that “just 33 per cent of Canadians who are members of a site are comfortable with these sites using their browsing information to improve their site experience. There is no difference in support for the use of consumers’ browsing history to serve them targeted ads, be it with the general population, the privacy concerned, or members of a site.”

But how much information are users willing to consciously hand over to win access to services, prizes or additional content?

A survey of 1800 visitors to, a coupon and rebate site owned by Q Interactive, has claimed that web visitors are willing “to receive free online services and information in exchange for the use of my data to target relevant advertising to me.”

Now, my impression is that visitors to sites like – who are actively seeking out value and benefits online – would be predisposed to believing that online sites would be able to deliver useful content and relevant ads.

That said, Mediapost, who had access to details of the full Q Interactive survey, cautions that users “… continue to put the brakes on hard when asked which specific information they are willing to hand over. The survey found 77.8% willing to give zip code, 64.9% their age and 72.3% their gender, but only 22.4% said they wanted to share the Web sites they visited and only 12% and 12.1% were willing to have their online purchases or the search history respectively to be shared …”
In both the TNS Facts/CMA and Q Interactive surveys, the results seem to indicate that users are willing to make a conscious decision to share information about themselves – especially if it is with sites they trust and with whom they have an established relationship.

Startling for privacy advocates is the willingness to trade data like zip code, age and gender – three data points that can effectively identify each individual when overlaid and correlated. (Kim Cameron has made this point, and academics from the University of Calgary have demonstrated how closely a postal code can target your actual street address.)

Now, users may be willing to provide that information because they fully intend to lie about it. In a survey conducted by our office in 2007, 13% of Canadians reported that they had deliberately given incorrect information to a retailer when asked for it – and that was in a face-to-face transaction. We can assume that it is far easier to mislead when simply entering information into an online form.

It is encouraging to read that respondents are reluctant to allow sites or services to share specific information about their purchases or their search habits.

A common thread seems to be emerging: consumers see a benefit to providing specific data that will help target information relevant to their needs, but they are less certain about allowing their past behaviour to be used to make inferences about their individual preferences.

They may feel their past search and browsing habits might just have a greater impact on their personal and professional life than the limited re-distribution of basic personal information by sites they trust. Especially if those previous habits might be seen as indiscreet, even obscene.

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