Can Digital Privacy be Bought? (And if “Yes,” for What Price?)

Consumers in today’s digital world access a range of services that are offered for no charge, but there is a classic saying “nothing in life is free”.  In reality, the “free” services available online – information, entertainment and applications – usually come with a non-monetary price that may consist of exposure to advertising, opting in to a marketing list, or surrendering personal data.  While many consumers are willing to accept advertising or share their information in exchange for not paying cash to use services, others take pains to shield themselves at all costs. To understand how each generation values privacy and how much this privacy is worth, Rockbridge examined the issue in our National Technology Readiness Survey.[i]

Will consumers view ads if the price is right?  Spam emails and advertisements are inescapable in our modern world. But what if consumers were paid for viewing an ad? We asked the public if they would be willing to accept compensation in exchange for viewing solicitations. Two-fifths (42%) of consumers reported that they would be highly interested in getting paid to open ads. Millennials (ages 18-34) are most likely to be interested (48%), compared to Gen X (ages 35-54) (44%) and Boomers (55 and over) (37%).  A portion of the public will not even consider opening ads at any price.  Boomers are the most resistant to advertisements, with 19% saying they wouldn’t open solicitations even if you paid them. This is compared to 11% of Gen X and only 8% of Millennials.

What is the going price for consumers to view ads? Openness to advertisements varies greatly by the delivery method. While most consumers are fine with viewing solicitations through email (90%), text messages are less popular (40%). Phone calls are very unpopular, with only 18% willing to accept calls on a mobile phone and 15% on a wireline phone.  We asked those who would consider viewing/listening to advertising for a price how much they would expect to be paid, and the going rate reflects the acceptability of the delivery method. The going rate consumers expect to be paid for email solicitations is $2 per solicitation. Text messages run $1 per solicitation, wireline phone calls $5 per solicitation, and mobile phone calls $4 per solicitation.

Will consumers sell their privacy if the “price is right”?  To take things one step further, we asked consumers whether they would be willing to sell their private digital information, including social media history, web history, shopping history, and mobile app usage. Consumers place a high value on this type of private digital information—half (48%) of consumers are not willing to part with their personal information for any price. As expected, Boomers are least likely to sell the information, with 63% saying wouldn’t sell compared to 43% of Gen X and 38% of Millennials. For those willing to sell, the going rate for their private digital information is $250. However, 8% of adults were willing to part with the information for $32 or less!

While many consumers are protective of their digital information, a significant portion are willing to part with it if the price is right. Younger generations especially seem to view advertisements as a fact of life, and may prefer to get paid to view them than block them altogether.

[i] The National Technology Readiness is an annual tracking study of consumer technology trends.  It is authored by Rockbridge and A. Parasuraman, and is co-sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Service at the Robert H. Smith School of Business.  The results here are based on a random sample of 933 online U.S. consumers age 18 and older surveyed in October 2015.

Written by: Kelly Bell, Research Director and Charles Colby, Chief Methodologist