Digital Consumerism: Connecting the Dots

Virna Sekuj, Strategic Insights Manager at GlobalWebIndex, joins IN CLEAR FOCUS to discuss digital consumerism and evolving attitudes towards personal data.

IN CLEAR FOCUS this week: as new research reveals consumers’ growing desire to be compensated for sharing their personal data, we evaluate the viability of the business model that underpins the Internet. Virna Sekuj, Strategic Insights Manager at GlobalWebIndex, joins us to discuss digital consumerism. We learn how evolving attitudes towards personal data are raising privacy concerns and why the premiumization of in-real-life experiences is a growing trend.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, a unique perspective on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello, I’m your host Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency. We’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Today we’re going to be talking about digital consumerism, our evolving attitudes towards personal data, privacy and the premiumization of in-real-life versus digital experiences. These are themes highlighted in new research from GlobalWebIndex. An international market research company established in London in 2009, GlobalWebIndex now has offices in Prague, Athens, and New York City, which is where our guest today, Virna Sekoj, is based. Virna is the Strategic Insights Manager for the Americas and uses GlobalWebIndex data to help clients with strategic business goals and decisions. Additionally, Virna contributes to GlobalWebIndex reports, infographics, thought leadership, blog series, press interviews and podcasts – like this one. Virna’s interests include consumer psychology, gender representation in media, and the relationship between society and technology. Welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS, Virna.

Virna Sekuj: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Adrian Tennant: Before diving into the topics I mentioned in the intro, could you first explain the research methodology that GlobalWebIndex uses?

Virna Sekuj: Sure. So as you mentioned, we’re an international digitally-focused market research company. We are the world’s largest study into what we call the connected consumer. So essentially internet users all around the world and we conduct our core survey across 46 different countries, soon to be 47. And our objective really is to provide a full 360-degree view of the digital consumer and their lives online. And we do this by covering all sorts of different data points on topics that range from attitudes and lifestyle, media consumption, brand engagement, how people are interacting with brands, online marketing touchpoints, and everything in between.

Adrian Tennant: Perfect. In your report, “Decoding the data economy,” you make it clear that you believe the business model that underpins the Internet is really being challenged. What led you to that assertion?

Virna Sekuj: Yeah, so probably the most popular business model that really underpins the Internet now is this idea of free services that are funded by advertising revenue. And advertisers ultimately get value out of this because they’re able to tap into the personal data of users who were on these free services and free websites. So if you think about all of the social media platforms we use: Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram, and everything, we as consumers get to take advantage of all of the functionality that they provide to us and all of the amazing features. We can stay connected to other people and consume content and all these types of things without actually giving the providers our money. But they have to make money somehow, right? And it’s actually based off of our data. So the exchange is that we give them access to all of this data that we produce our data footprint online and on social media. And they’re able to sell it to their advertisers who can then use it to better target us at different touchpoints in our whole online journey and our purchase journey with personalized ads. So this has been really successful for a pretty long time now and it’s allowed for all of these free services, these great services that we use to grow pretty rapidly. But that’s being challenged now particularly. And there are a few reasons why. So first of all, I think a lot of people are probably aware of some of the scandals we’ve seen in recent years around data breaches or fake news and Cambridge Analytica and all of these companies that are really in the limelight for not properly protecting consumer data. So there’s a lot of attention on that and there’s also the legislation side of it. So the legislation and the governments are starting to catch up with where technology has been for a while and things like GDPR, or the California Consumer Privacy Act are starting to really put some accountability on service providers to how they protect and store and track our data. So it’s really coming to the forefront of consumers’ minds and they’re starting to become more aware of it, more concerned about it, and are starting to challenge this model that has been very functional and successful for a long time.

Adrian Tennant: We’ve talked about this phenomenon on IN CLEAR FOCUS before – that is, that consumers often say that the really concerned about personal data privacy in the abstract, but then the actual digital behavior sometimes suggests otherwise. And you’ve coined a phrase for this, you call it, “The Privacy Paradox,” which I really like. What kinds of consumer behaviors exemplify this paradox?

Virna Sekuj: I think when people are faced with this idea of privacy and data protection in an abstract, they’re very pro-protection and very conscious of it. But then when it comes to their actual behaviors, they’re less likely to be going out of their way to do things that would, in the long run, protect their own data. So some of the things that we track in our global research are very high-level attitudes towards privacy. Like agreeing with the statement, “I’m concerned about the internet eroding my personal privacy.” So when you ask, “Do you feel this way? Do you agree with this?” we get really high levels of agreement. It’s something like two-thirds of people around the world, say that they’re concerned about the internet eroding their personal privacy. But then when you start to look at what people are actually doing to protect their privacy and whether they’re willing to give up a level of convenience or whether they’re willing to pay for services in order to not have their data tracked, there’s not the willingness to actually follow through. So people want the convenient use of social media. They don’t want to have to pay for things like that. They like having brands give them personalized recommendations off of what they might like based off of their internet history or what else they’ve purchased and all of these things. You have to give up a certain level of convenience and ease and I guess the quality of using internet services in order to really maintain an ironclad grip on your own data privacy, which people are not as willing to do.

Adrian Tennant: What types of personal data collection and use typically make consumers most nervous do you find?

Virna Sekuj: Yeah, so all data is not created equal is what we like to say. There is definitely a spectrum of sensitivities as to what different kinds of data people are pretty comfortable sharing versus what they’re really not comfortable sharing. And this is important for brands that operate online and especially those that are considering tapping into trends like data monetization or asking people to provide their data in exchange for different types of access to goods or services or even money. And what we found in our research is that things like your location, your address, your mood, even to the extent of things that you’ve bought online are pretty safe areas of data. People are fairly comfortable giving away some of that, but what is probably the most highly sensitive is anything related to health or medical records – anything related to financial data, income, household spending is quite sensitive. And then browsing history is really sensitive so people are not willing to share data like that in many cases.

Adrian Tennant: Now in the report you write about the widening gap between data collection and management players within the digital ecosystem and the consumers whose data it is that’s being brokered. To what extent do you think consumers feel a loss of control over their personal data?

Virna Sekuj: I think it’s definitely growing, this idea of having a loss of control. So a lot of the research that we’ve done into data privacy and protection has been specific to the US and the UK and one of the big stats from the report that you’ve referenced a couple of times especially is that around 40% of internet users in these two markets say that they don’t feel in control of their personal data anymore which is pretty significant. And I would even argue that that’s a little conservative because, at the end of the day, I think as much as even some of us who work in the data space feel like we have a little bit more knowledge or a little bit more awareness, ultimately no one’s really that much in control and that’s kind of part of the problem.

Adrian Tennant: Hmm. That’s fascinating to me. I mean, you had mentioned obviously GDPR in Europe and the California Consumer Privacy Act, that one went into action just at the beginning of this year.

Virna Sekuj: Mmmm.

Adrian Tennant: Obviously the objective of these regulations is to give consumers the right to protect their data and personal information online. In what kinds of ways do you think the introduction of these regulations have maybe affected consumers’ behaviors or attitudes?

Virna Sekuj: Yeah, so at the moment, I think that the probably most positive impact they’re having is on businesses and companies that operate in the data space. So they’ve introduced a lot more accountability and transparency. And a need for just better protections around how consumer data is stored and gathered when it’s deleted. All of these types of things, which ultimately protects consumers in a way that previously they hadn’t been. For consumers themselves, I think it’s brought the issue more to light and people are becoming more aware and a bit more suspicious and may be careful about what they think about when they want to share data. But generally, the picture is still quite complicated and confusing for people. You’re seeing more and more of these opt-in messages that come from whatever website or app that you’re using and people don’t really know what to do, sometimes. There’s this massive list of terms and conditions that nobody really reads. And it just adds to this whole environment of uncertainty around, “Who has my data? Oh, did I opt into that? Do I have any rights around this?” So the framework isn’t entirely clear yet. It’s becoming better but there is this kind of muddy waters for people to work through at this point.

Adrian Tennant: As you mentioned in the report, Governor Gavin Newsome has proposed the Data Dividend for Californians, a bill that would mandate tech companies to pay users for their digital data. In what kinds of ways are companies rewarding consumers for use of their personal data right now?

Virna Sekuj: There’s a couple of early examples, almost experimental ways that companies have started to do this. I think the Amazon one from last year is a good one. So they tried to see if people would sell their data by offering a $10 credit during Amazon Prime Day last year if they let some of their behaviors and browsing behaviors be tracked, essentially. So that was very obvious, “Here is a certain amount of money for us to be able to access your data.” Facebook has been doing this on some level in order to test how users who are on Facebook use other competitive services too. So they have apps that pay users to basically allow Facebook to track how they use other apps and competitors’ sites. This has been a bit contentious though and I know that Apple doesn’t allow these types of apps to be downloaded and used on their devices because it violates Apple’s terms for one app collecting data on another app. So it’s been complicated but we’re starting to see experimental efforts by companies to tap into data monetization. And as people become more aware that their data has value and they’re not necessarily the ones benefiting from this value, it’s going to become a more and more common occurrence.

Adrian Tennant: So your feeling is that we might well say the introduction of products that help consumers take back control of their data. What could such solutions look like, do you think?

Virna Sekuj: Yeah, it’s definitely going to be an interesting sub-industry that comes out of the whole data economy. You can’t necessarily control your data as well as you would like to or you don’t have the time or the expertise to read all of these legal documents and opt-out of this and opt out of that. So for a fee, a service provider will probably help you navigate the whole world of T’s and C’s and data sharing and which websites you should trust. And can you delete your data and they’ll be able to help people get rid of their data footprint and remove some of the personal information that they have just floating out there on the internet that doesn’t necessarily need to be out there. So we’re in this data economy but we’re just at the beginning of it. This whole industry of data monitoring as you kind of hinted too, data management for the user is probably one of the next waves that are going to crop up because it’s just become so complicated for the average internet user to really manage their data footprint. And people are becoming, as I said, more aware of it and more concerned and they probably will be willing to pay for something like that in the future.

Adrian Tennant: It’s a fascinating prospect.

Virna Sekuj: Mmm.

Adrian Tennant: I want to turn now to the recent report entitled, “Connecting the Dots,” in which several contributors at GlobalWebIndex predict consumer trends that will shape 2020 and beyond. This is a very thoroughly researched report and it is also a great read. And Virna, your section is entitled, “Can I speak to a human please?”

Virna Sekuj: Yes.

Adrian Tennant: What data points led you to write this piece?

Virna Sekuj: So this is an interesting one and it’s probably one of my favorites, just like topics that people are discussing this year. And what led us to look at this as a theme was some of the trending data that we have tracked for a number of years and the changes that we’ve seen in it. So we’ve tracked in our global survey user attitudes towards technology and the internet for a while now. And one of the trends that we’ve started to see is that there’s a growing discomfort or uneasiness with how much technology has really permeated into our lives. So agreement with certain attitudes like, “Technology makes life more complicated,” has grown, for example, by about 27% between 2014 and 2019. So essentially, people are more than a quarter more likely now versus five or six years ago to say that they think technology is making their lives more complicated. But at the same time, people are more connected than ever before, which is another data point we track. So people feel like they’re constantly connected, that’s growing, but at the same time there’s this increasing rate of uneasiness with it. So technology is everywhere. We use it for everything. It’s part of our lives and like there’s a resistance towards that. So it’s a bit of a cycle. And it’s interesting that that’s really kind of coming to a head now.

Adrian Tennant: You also identify an emerging trend in the premiumization of in-real-life experiences in contrast to technology-driven experiences. Can you explain that?

Virna Sekuj: Sure. So as I said, technology has really permeated like every aspect of our lives now, right? So it’s not just in how we work or you know, how we go to school and how we communicate, but it’s becoming more and more a part of things like healthcare. It’s a part of our transportation systems, our entertainment, everything. So many of our experiences really are just mediated by screens and there’s a reason for that. So technology not only makes things more convenient and more efficient, but it makes things a lot cheaper as well. So it’s cheaper to put in a bunch of self-service kiosks in a grocery store, for example, in the long-run versus pay human workers and give benefits to human workers and train them up. It’s cheaper to put in e-learning systems and laptops in every classroom and only have one teacher oversee a whole group of students versus just have more staff and more one-on-one learning experiences. And technology as well is cheaper now than it ever has been before. So if you look at how much a computer cost 30 years ago, it’s just an astronomical difference. Versus now when everybody in developed, mature markets essentially – no matter your income levels – will have a smartphone. It’s just like it’s mass culture. So what is the more expensive and difficult thing to get at is to have a person work with you one-on-one: a person actually provide a service or enhance an experience for you and give you that personalized, one-on-one attention or to get something that’s handmade and slightly imperfect because it didn’t go through a whole automated, mechanized mass production system. So what is becoming more exclusive and difficult to get because it’s inevitably more expensive is having that human contact and the human element in all of our services and experiences. And that’s driving this whole idea that the human touch, the human element is becoming more of a premium.

Adrian Tennant: Hmm. Now, in the report, you discuss some of the ways that technology itself is becoming more human, like replacing jobs and services previously performed by humans. You also cite research from Capgemini that suggests consumers are about as likely to trust product recommendations from voice assistants as they are to trust human salespeople. So what does the rapid adoption of voice assistants on mobile phones and dedicated smart speakers tell us?

Virna Sekuj: Yeah, voice is really interesting. It’s one of the device trends that we’ve seen grow so rapidly over the past few years and a lot of it is driven by younger internet users who are very, very comfortable using voice and automated services and bots and all of these things. So much so that I think it’s a little bit worrying how comfortable people have become, especially younger people with interacting with technology over perhaps interacting with a person. And that really points to a lot of potential questions in the future as to how adept or comfortable are people going to with picking up a phone and speaking to someone in an unprepared way or advocating for themselves to an actual human when they have to like look for healthcare solutions or something. Expecting the unexpected when you talk to a human is something that you don’t really get when you’re used to voice assistants and bots and all of these types of things. So there are a lot of questions and implications around – will people be able to do that? Are they going to be prepared for human-to-human interaction? And are there going to be implications around social anxiety and discomfort and all of these types of things when dealing with the basic, everyday function of just talking to people? Are we getting too comfortable just to go to voice bots and chatbots for everything?

Adrian Tennant: In an increasingly digital world then, you believe we’ll see human interaction become more of a premium commodity. And what kinds of implications will this have for commerce?

Virna Sekuj: Yeah, so everything about commerce is going online or becoming automated in some way because that’s just the easier, more efficient, cheaper way to do it. But I think this whole concept, that human interaction and the human element is going to become more of a premium, has a lot of implications for brands that want to differentiate themselves and position themselves potentially as luxury or as a bit more up-market and upscale. And there are other people and analysts that have been predicting that the future of the luxury industry is really going to be shaped by how much of this human element they can integrate into commerce and experiences and provide things that are a bit more back to basics. So luxury is not necessarily going to be shaped by how beautiful or expensive or exclusive these material things are as it typically has been – although that’s always going to be an element to it – but how humanized, how unique, how much one-on-one attention you’ll be able to get is going to be part of what makes something luxury. And brands that want to kind of integrate that whole element into their positioning and into how they speak to consumers and how they offer something that’s different I think can tap into that and be really successful with it.

Adrian Tennant: Hmm. It’s a fascinating hypothesis. Thank you.

Virna Sekuj: Yeah.

Adrian Tennant: Virna. We have a very active and engaged internship program here at Bigeye. Could you tell us a little bit about how you came to be working in research?

Virna Sekuj: Yeah, of course. Um, so I’ve been working in research pretty much my whole career. Um, I started off doing a research assistant job when I was in college. Um, and I studied Sociology because I had a real curiosity and interest in human behavior and what drives people to make the decisions that they do and how our collectivist society impacts everything. So I was a natural person to flow into research. I’m a very analyst-focused kind of mentality and I think that for anybody who has similar interests, it’s a good place to be because there is a need for analysts and researchers right now. As we talked a lot about the data-driven economy, everything is going to be around data. All of the decisions that businesses make now are fueled by some sort of analytics, so it’s a good place to be, I think.

Adrian Tennant: It also speaks to the fact that you still need human beings to really interpret data sets and to find meaning. 

Virna Sekuj: Exactly. Yeah. You have to be able to make connections and tell the story from the data and fortunately, computers are not there yet. So you definitely need to have both a creative and technical skillset I think to be really successful in insights.

Adrian Tennant: Great points Virna. Thank you. If listeners are interested in learning more about GlobalWebIndex or your reports that we discussed today, where can they find resources?

Virna Sekuj: So you can check out our website, where a lot of our case studies and reports are shared or follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. And a lot of the new content that we produce is updated there as well.

Adrian Tennant: Perfect. Thank you very much for being on IN CLEAR FOCUS, Virna. 

Virna Sekuj: Yeah, thanks so much for having me. It was great to chat.


Adrian Tennant: My thanks to our guest this week, Virna Sekuj, Strategic Insights Manager for the Americas at GlobalWebIndex. You can find links to the resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at under “Insights.” Just click on the button marked “Podcast.” Consider subscribing to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player. And please rate and review the show. And if you have an Amazon Echo device, you can use the IN CLEAR FOCUS skill to add the podcast to your Flash Briefing. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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