Notification Needy: Understanding Why People Share Their Data

I come from the Friendster era when every couple of days I would get an occasional notification about a “testimonial” that an old college roommate posted on my profile.

Around 2007, a friend encouraged me to make the switch, promising me that Facebook was far more exciting and explained how you could “tag photos” and “write on each other’s wall,” so on and so forth.

So I made the switch.

While I wasn’t a superfan, I posted on occassion, usually about nonsensical things that nobody really paid any attention to. 

But then around 2008, pre-election and a few international adventure trips later, the notifications started rolling in — everyone from close friends to colleagues to distant relatives. The power of social media (and sharing) started to become evident when the feeling of election-related solidarity and excitement became palpable — all in the palm of my hand. 


Source: Pew Research Center

In a Pew Research Survey, they broke down the types of people who share as either Curators or Creators. They found that 46% of adult internet users post original photos or videos online that they themselves have created (Creators), and 41% of adult internet users take photos or videos that they have found online and repost them on sites designed for sharing images with many people (Curators). At the time, social media still felt relatively new and users were updating freely, thinking little about digital tracking.  

Fast forward to 2013, when Edward Snowden and the NSA came into the spotlight and the public became more aware that their data might be monitored or used for commercial purposes. People started to become wary of posting information to their social media sites, especially around public policy issues, out of fear of being monitored or engaging in a polarizing discussion that might make them a target of the NSA.

As a result, this event caused the public to become more educated on data rights and in turn increasingly aware that their data might be used for “some ad” or that Facebook News Feeds are ”mildly adjusted” based on interests, likes and search queries.

So now that consumers are more apprehensive about sharing data and are doing it with a more discerning attitude, what must companies do to continue to better understand their customers attitudes towards sharing and how they can build a trusted platform for data exchange? Let’s look at what motivates people to share (or not share), situations where users are knowingly or unknowingly sharing their data and what companies can do to make their customers feel safe when offering more information about themselves.

What Motivates People To Share?

In a fascinating NYTimes study, titled The Psychology of Sharing: Why Do People Share, they revealed that people mainly share for the following reasons:

  • To bring valuable and entertaining content
  • To define ourselves to others
  • To grow and nourish relationships
  • Self-fulfillment
  • To get the word out about causes or brands


In this same study, 49% of the 2,500 participants stated that sharing allows them to inform others of products they care about and potentially change opinions or encourage action. In an era that thrives on a “you should try this” syndrome — say where somebody tries a product and wants their friends to enjoy the same benefits that they did, the impacts can be huge. 40% of millennials stated they are “somewhat likely” to make a purchase based on a friend’s recommendation on social media. So while peer-to-peer data sharing remains highly regarded, what about a brand or retailer who is mining this data to make recommendations?


Source: NYTimes

In an article titled, Sharing, But Not Happily, 55 percent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that “it’s O.K. if a store where I shop uses information it has about me to create a picture of me that improves the services they provide for me.” A large part of the resistance was tied into the fact that the didn’t know the store was collecting their information, inducing a feeling of wariness or mistrust. Consumers seem to be okay sharing data if the data transaction has been made clear by the company, however consumers don’t want an all-or-nothing situation. They want to be able to choose what people know about them.

Also, those who value their own data more had higher expectations of what they received in return, according to a recent HBR study.  


Source: Harvard Business Review

This information reveals that if companies are enjoying the benefits of mining customer data and experiencing increased ROI and better targeting, the consumer should equally feel the benefits with more trade-offs, discounts, increased security measures and customization that feels meaningful.

Are People Aware of When They Are Sharing?

According to Wikipedia, information privacy that usually comes under concern breaks down into the following types: Internet, Medical, Financial, Locational, Political, and Educational. In the UPenn survey titled ‘The Tradeoff Fallacy’, they discovered that:

  • 49% of American adults who use the internet believe (incorrectly) that by law a supermarket must obtain a person’s permission before selling information about that person’s food purchases to other companies.

  • 69% do not know that a pharmacy does not legally need a person’s permission to sell information about the over-the-counter drugs that person buys.

  • 65% do not know that the statement “When a website has a privacy policy, it means the site will not share my information with other websites and companies without my permission” is false.

  • 55% do not know it is legal for an online store to charge different people different prices at the same time of day.

  • 62% do not know it is legal for an offline or physical store to charge different people different prices at the same time of day.

  • 62% do not know that price-comparison sites like Expedia or Orbitz are not legally required to include the lowest travel prices

That being said, if consumers are in the dark about how they may or may not be protected, similar to the Snowden/NSA situation, an expected occurence could force a company to shed light on how they are using consumer data. Companies need to act completely transparent and ensure that the benefits of data sharing outweigh the risks. For brands, it can be in the form of customization or loyalty programs. For healthcare, it can be in the form of research. For government, it can be for improving employment or transportation. Whatever the use case, the subjects of research shouldn’t be tuned out to why data is being collected in the first place.

How Can Companies Earn Their Customers’ Trust?

While companies and consumers alike are trying to carefully navigate the digital era, earning a customer’s trust is no different than how you would do so offline. Be honest and transparent. If you are collecting their data, be straightforward about it. If you are using incentives, such as activators to gain deeper insights into your audience, make the benefits really clear to your consumers so they feel that they are getting something out of the data transaction and the company isn’t solely focused on the bottom line.

And for those who are simply notification needy, disregard everything above.