There must be something special about the relationship of consumers with their smartphones — they feel so close to the smartphone and confident in it that they are willing to disclose more personal and even intimate information in interactions on the device.
Shiri Melumad and Robert Meyer, professors of marketing at the Wharton School in the University of Pennsylvania, chose to investigate the propensity of smartphone users to convey more personal information in user-generated content on their smartphones (2020). Earlier research has already shown that consumers are more willing to reveal details about themselves and their experiences on personal computers (PCs) than they would in face-to-face meetings with other people. Melumad and Meyer studied how the willingness of consumers to disclose personal information on smartphones fares in comparison with PCs. In two studies of real-world content (tweets on Twitter, online restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor) they confirm that information consumers provide on smartphones exhibits greater depth than on PCs. In two following experiments the researchers substantiate two factors that drive consumers to convey more personal, private and possibly sensitive information about themselves when communicating through their smartphones. A fifth experiment provides more supportive evidence with regard to privacy in the context of advertising (call-to-action ads).
- Metrics used to measure the depth of personal information include: use of first person; reference to friends and family; (negative) emotion expressions; and also use of authentic versus analytic style in writing.
One factor driving consumers to disclose more personal information on a smartphone has to do with the close relationship of users with their device: It is suggested that a smartphone instills a feeling of psychological comfort in its user. First, there is physical proximity — users keep their smartphone nearly always with or next to them, take it almost everywhere, and the smartphone lays in the palm of one’s hand when in use. Second, the smartphone oftentimes acts like an ‘adult pacifier’, emotionally relieving and making the consumer-user feel more secured. Consumers tend to feel safe when interacting on a smartphone, perhaps as if the phone was a close friend itself. The benefit of psychological comfort is more pronounced with a smartphone than with a PC. We might say that the smartphone feels more personal to a user nowadays than a personal computer.
Another factor proposed concerns the greater cognitive effort entailed in interacting with a small screen and (virtual) keyboard of a smartphone. Reading and writing on a smartphone requires more concentration on the task. This results in narrowed-attention of users which may have two salient implications. First, it is likely to make the smartphone user disengage from his or her surroundings while interacting with the smartphone — we probably all noticed how a person seems to ignore people or activity around him or her (even in company of another person sitting at the same coffeehouse table) when getting pre-occupied in reading, watching or writing something on the smartphone. Second, particularly when writing, users try to include the most relevant information, and that can also be intimate and private information about one’s self, experiences and actions, thoughts and feelings. Communicating through a smartphone can be cognitively consuming, and it may lead to some barriers to be lifted or inhibitions removed as content is being generated (e.g., posts, reviews, feedback).
Consumers usually have limited time to generate written content; they may not write so much (e.g., a shorter open-ended answer in a survey), but the information provided on a smartphone is likely to be more authentic and candid. That insight would be especially useful and valuable to marketers. As found in one of the experiments, smartphone users are aware that information they provide can be private and sensitive, yet this does not seem to stop them from including such information; participants in the study said they felt safe in contributing content with their smartphones. This does raise an issue of concern, whether and how developing a false sense of safety and confidence might negatively impact consumers in some instances. It is acknowledged, however, that this research relates to stories that consumers tell in user-generated content; Melumad notes that there is no indication consumers are willing to disclose sensitive personally identifying information differently on any type of device (e.g., name, physical address, phone number, as well as financial data).
- Note: Personal computers can be either desktops or laptops though the researchers refer specifically to laptops. There is a large gap in screen size between PCs (13”-15” for laptops, >15” for desktops) and smartphones (4”-6”). No mention is made of tablets whose screen sizes generally fall in mid-range. We are left to speculate what could be the effect on content generated with tablets based on similarity to PCs versus smartphones in ease-of-use, way of handling, and purpose of use (work vs. leisure).
The driving factors in enhancing the willingness of consumers to convey more personal information on smartphones are interesting and important. Marketers are advised to pay particular attention to content generated by consumers or customers that can be identified as originating from smartphones — the marketers would benefit from input that is likely to be more authentic, relevant and candid. The input may come in the form of posts on social media platforms, open-ended answers in surveys, product and service reviews (the latter with additional contribution that they are also likely to be perceived as more persuasive by other users). Feedback content generated on smartphones in direct interaction channels (e.g., company’s app) may also be more helpful to service managers.
For more information on this research:
 “Why Consumers Are Willing to Share Personal Information on Smartphones”, Knowledge@Wharton, The Wharton School, 26 May 2020 (an interview with Shiri Melumad).
 “Full Disclosure: How Smartphones Enhance Consumer Self-Disclosure”; Shiri Melumad and Robert Meyer, 2020; Journal of Marketing, 84 (3), pp. 28-45 (access to the academic article can be obtained in ResearchGate.net).