Personalisation and the privacy paradox

Personal information available online enables brands to tailor messages to individual audience members. But how does this square up to privacy concerns?


Social networks have become part and parcel of our modern life.

More than 1.3 billion people worldwide have an account on the world's most popular social networking site, Facebook. More than half of those users log on every day and disclose personal information. Facebook is particularly interesting for brands, since not only does it reach and connect a large audience, it also acquires and manages an incredible amount of user data. These data include user accounts, photos on Instagram, private messages and phone numbers through WhatsApp and locations through the recently acquired application Moves. By combining the data Facebook could provide a wide variety of targeting options for brands to address their audience in a highly individualistic manner. In research, personalised strategic communication messages are linked with high brand relevance, trustworthiness and viral effects.

However, caution is needed. Here, we explain how personal data became omnipresent on social media and their application for personalised advertising on social networking sites. As Facebook is undeniably the biggest and most influential social network to date, it will be taken as practical example in this article.

Selfies and self-disclosure

It is hard to imagine that, 50 years ago, our parents or grandparents would have been happy to freely publish and share their picture, name and place of birth in a worldwide yearbook-style document. Today, however, most of us spontaneously do this on social networks. At first sight, it seems difficult to grasp why people are so keen to disclose information about themselves online. Academics have studied this phenomenon and have found various reasons to explain online self-disclosure.

First of all, the need for self-presentation plays an important role. As part of identity building activities, people try to manage the impressions they convey to others. This way, they try to promote positive aspects of themselves and persuade others in the process. Second, the need for popularity is generally higher on the internet than in ‘real life’ and the higher one’s need for popularity, the more personal information one is prepared to disclose. So, if users want to stay popular, they have to keep uploading pictures, keep liking brands and keep posting status updates. Third, self-disclosure is also a driver of social relationships. It has been found to be particularly rewarding in terms of friendships and social contacts, since reciprocal disclosure of personal details strengthens the ties between ‘friends’ on the network. Finally, there is a quid pro quo mentality: in order to see what others are up to, one also has to be willing to show the same information. This mentality is reflected in a social pressure to self-disclose personal data. To be accepted by other users, one has to self-disclose certain details. In order to be allowed to see photos of others, users must upload selfies themselves.

Karolien Poels

Dr Karolien Poels is an associate professor of Strategic Communication at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. She investigates the use and experience of digital media (social networking sites, digital games) by individuals and employs these insights to study strategic communication (e.g. advertising, crisis communication, virtual stores) by organisations.

Evert Van den Broeck

Evert Van den Broeck is a Ph.D. candidate on the topic of privacy issues and the effectiveness of personalised advertising in social networking sites at the University of Antwerp. He studies at the MIOS (Media & ICT in Organisation and Society) research group of the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Antwerp.