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Why Consumers Are Willing to Share Personal Information on Smartphones

Nearly everyone has experienced some version of phubbing, a term to describe being snubbed by someone who is more engrossed in their smartphone screen than the conversation or activity taking place in front of them. These powerful little devices have changed virtually everything about human communication, including the way we interact with each other. New research from Wharton marketing professors Shiri Melumad and Robert Meyer finds that people are more willing to share deeper and more personal information when communicating on a smartphone compared with a personal computer. In their paper, “Full Disclosure: How Smartphones Enhance Consumer Self-Disclosure,” the professors explain that it’s the device that makes all the difference. Smartphones are always at hand, and their tiny screens and keypads require laser-focused attention, which means the user is more likely to block out other concerns.

The findings are important for marketers looking to make the most out of user-generated content, especially the kind that can be shared with other potential customers. “The more personal and intimate nature of smartphone-generated reviews results in content that is more persuasive to outside readers, in turn heightening purchase intentions,” the professors write in their paper. Melumad recently joined the Wharton Business Daily radio show on Sirius XM to discuss the research.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Wharton Business Daily: Can you give us the backstory about this specific research and why you think it is important?

Shiri Melumad: I’m generally interested in how this increased integration of different technologies into our daily lives is changing the way that we think, the way we feel and the way that we behave. In a lot of my research, I look at how the way we express ourselves and communicate differs depending on the particular device that we use. For example, if I’m writing a review on my phone versus my computer, do I express myself differently?

Specifically, the inspiration for this paper is something that I noticed in my own behavior, which is that when I’m writing an email or I’m messaging with a friend, I tend to be less censored when I’m doing it on my phone than on my computer. I was interested in understanding what might be going on there.

WBD: What is driving this difference between the smartphone and the home computer?

Melumad: What we show in this paper is that there are two parallel explanations. In another paper of mine, I showed that our phone tends to act like an adult pacifier for us, relative to using our laptops. One implication of our phone acting like an adult pacifier is that when we engage in a certain task on our phone, it makes us feel more psychologically comforted than when we engage in the exact same task on our laptops. And when I feel more psychologically comforted, I’m more willing to share information that is more intimate or personal. So, that’s one factor that’s driving this.

The other factor has to do more with the device. It’s harder to engage in certain tasks on our phone because it has a smaller keyboard and screen, right? Because it’s harder to complete a task on our phone, we tend to have to devote more cognitive resources to whatever we’re doing, narrowing our attention more intently on whatever task we’re doing on the device. That means we also tend to simultaneously block out any distracting thoughts or external factors in our environment that might otherwise inhibit us from disclosing — for example, concerns about how others might react to what we’re sharing.

“When we engage in a certain task on our phone, it makes us feel more psychologically comforted than when we engage in the exact same task on our laptops.”

If you’ve ever ridden on a subway or bus, you’ve probably seen people completely engrossed on their phones, and they’re often engaging in very personal activities, as if there’s no one else around them. That’s sort of the phenomenon that I’m describing.

WBD: Our smartphones have become an extension of our selves. Most of us have them either in our hands or our pockets at all times. There’s an automatic connection to them, don’t you think?

Melumad: Yes. Coming back to the paper I alluded to, where I show that our phone acts sort of like an adult pacifier for us, the reason that happens is precisely what you’re saying. Our phone is virtually always with us, and we tend to use it for very personal activities; for example, I’m keeping in constant touch with my friends and keeping in constant touch with work. It’s really the interaction of the ways in which we tend to use our phone and the fact that it’s almost always accessible to us that makes it such a personal device for us.

WBD: What are the takeaways for marketers? You also think that this research could be helpful in the current coronavirus pandemic. Could you explain that?

Melumad: Our findings have a number of important implications for marketers. First, our findings suggest that smartphone-generated content may be more diagnostic of how consumers actually think and feel. For example, in one study in the paper, we look at restaurant reviews from Tripadvisor. If you think of this in the context of restaurant reviews, to the extent that restaurants want to understand their customers’ true preferences and opinions, our findings imply they should really focus on smartphone-generated reviews in particular. Another important implication again has to do with our analysis of the restaurant reviews that we looked at: We found that this greater self-disclosure in smartphone-generated reviews results in content that’s more persuasive to other customers. This implies that firms can identify which posts are more likely to influence other customers simply by identifying which device the posts were written on.

“Our findings suggest that smartphone-generated content may be more diagnostic of how consumers actually think and feel.”

Finally, our findings also suggest that marketers and firms may want to encourage customers to provide certain types of information or to respond to certain types of sensitive questions on their phones in particular. We can think of this in our current context; for instance, lately there has been increased discussion about contact tracing, or asking people who test positive for COVID-19 to disclose the list of people they’ve come in physical contact with. Our findings suggest that the CDC and other organizations may want to encourage people to disclose this information through a smartphone app, specifically.

WBD: What about data privacy concerns for smartphone users?

Melumad: Logically, our privacy concerns should be similar across devices. Yet here I’m showing that something as seemingly benign as the device we’re using can actually change our willingness to disclose.

I want to just take a step back and say that we’re finding this effect in certain contexts. Specifically, all the disclosures that we’re looking at are pretty low-stakes disclosures. The types of data we’re looking at are responses to survey questions like, “Admit to an embarrassing product that you’ve purchased,” or customer-generated restaurant reviews. This isn’t to say that in terms of disclosures that are higher-stakes, we would necessarily see this difference; for example, I don’t have any empirical evidence to suggest that if I’m asked for my Social Security number, I’m going to be more willing to disclose it on my phone. I think that’s a very important caveat to these findings.

WBD: Do you expect that we’re going to see companies want to push the consumer to do more on their smartphones?

Melumad: Absolutely. I think the reality is we’re already seeing that happening. For instance, we’re seeing many platforms shifting towards mobile-first or even mobile-only strategies, and this makes a lot of sense: Not only does most of the world own a smartphone, but our phones are an increasingly ubiquitous part of our daily lives. So, yes, I do think we should expect to see companies increasingly asking us to do more on our smartphones.

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