By Fran Maier

On Monday I presented the results of our latest consumer privacy research on behavioral advertising at a TRUSTe-hosted media event in New York City. We partnered with Harris Interactive and polled more than 1,000 consumers, asking about their privacy beliefs and opinions regarding behavioral advertising. One thing the research confirmed (which those of us in the privacy field already know from daily experience), is that consumers care a lot about privacy. 94% said that privacy is either “a really important issue that I think about often” or “a somewhat important issue that I think about sometimes”. Moreover, we found that consumers are skeptical about the safety of the Internet: 75% agreed with the statement that “the Internet is not well-regulated and naïve users can be easily taken advantage of”.

But what do consumers think about behavioral advertising? Our research uncovered a variety of consumer privacy perspectives on behavioral advertising, some expected, some, surprising. Here are my five, high-level research takeaways:

1. In the absence of education, consumers assume the worst

Consumers don’t always understand how behavioral advertising works and, in the absence of information, many will assume that the data activities are more privacy invasive than what typically occurs behind the scenes. For example, more than 1 in 3 consumers believe that websites share their contact information (email, phone number etc.) or name with advertisers without their consent. In reality, most behavioral advertising operations only know consumers by anonymous cookies, not name. When consumers assume the worst it can profoundly affect how they feel about behavioral advertising: our research found that consumer favorability toward behavioral advertising increases 100 percent when they are assured that their personally identifiable information is not involved.

We saw similar consumer concern in our Spring 2011 mobile privacy research, which found that 56% of consumers are concerned that when they use a mobile app their personal information is being shared with others without their permission.

2. How we talk about “behavioral advertising” affects consumer favorability toward it

We asked consumers how they felt about various behavioral advertising synonyms or related terms, such as “Internet cookies”. Terms that used words like “tracking” or “targeting” drew the most ire from consumers. 59% of consumers have “strongly negative” or “somewhat negative” feelings toward the term “online tracking”, whereas only 11% of consumers had similarly negative feelings toward the term “interest-based advertising”, even though these terms are often used to describe the same set of activities.

3. Consumers talk the talk, but don’t always walk the walk when it comes to privacy protection

Our research found that only 37% of consumers know how to protect their personal information online and consistently take the necessary steps to do so. Only 25% indicated that they regularly opt-out of online tracking, but we know from experience that consumers opt-out at far lower percentages. We’ve previously observed this paradox between consumer privacy opinions and privacy actions, but this should not lead us to conclude that consumer don’t actually care about privacy. A consumer’s privacy perception about a website or platform can substantially alter the way that they interact with it. The significant, consistent lift and ROI our clients experience when displaying our privacy seal is proof of this. Better privacy creates more consumer trust, which leads to increased interactions and openness.

4. Consumers want privacy control; it’s incumbent on industry to provide them with appropriate tools

When asked who they trusted the most to protect their online privacy, 45% of consumers said “themselves”, more than “the government” and “self-regulatory programs” combined. Consumers want privacy control: 44% expressed interest in a “Do Not Track” list and 46% indicated they “definitely would not” consent to sharing their location data with advertisers. Would that many consumers actually use such tools? Probably not, but by simply having these tools widely available we can increase consumer comfort towards behavioral advertising. For many consumers, the very availability of control is what instills confidence – they don’t actually need to use the tools to feel in control.

5. Self-Regulation Is Making Progress

The Digital Advertising Alliance’s (DAA) Self-Regulatory Program for Behavioral Advertising has just recently achieved significant momentum in the marketplace, yet consumer awareness of the program has already grown. Despite DAA compliant ads making up a small percent of all online ad impressions, consumer awareness of the program’s blue Advertising Option Icon is already at 5%. We can expect that awareness to grow as more ad impressions become compliant, and TRUSTe looks forward to tracking this awareness in follow-up research. Also encouraging, is the positive impact the self-regulatory program has on consumers who encounter it. Our research found that 43% of consumers are “somewhat” or “much more” positive toward advertisers who participate in the self-regulatory program.

You can obtain the full research results, as well as video interviews with actual consumers and supporting research material by visiting: