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Zero-party data: Definition, examples, and use cases

Zero-party data gathering is a strategy that websites use to collect information about their users. In this post, we’ll define what zero-party data is and explain how companies collect it. Since online privacy is becoming increasingly important to all internet users, we’ll offer some tips on how to protect yourself from online tracking.

Zero-party data: Definition, examples, and use cases

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

What is zero-party data?

Zero-party data is information that customers and internet users voluntarily share with companies and websites. This data includes user preferences, interests, purchase intentions, and other personal contexts.

Unlike data gathered through tracking or inferred through analytics, users share their zero-party data directly with companies and service providers. Zero-party data helps providers to offer a more personalized user experience with marketing and ads.

The importance of zero-party data

Why is zero-party data important? Because in theory, it’s more reliable than data gathered through other strategies. Instead of collecting data points about on-page behaviors, which could be misinterpreted, the website or business is asking the customer directly for their feedback.

Collecting zero-party data gives companies useful information about their customers, which can help them improve services, tune content delivery algorithms, and run more personalized ads. Advocates for zero-party data strategies usually argue that asking users for information directly improves the relationship between customers and companies because people are choosing to give their data freely.

How is zero-party data collected?

To get a better understanding of zero-party data, we should look into how websites gather it. Here are three common methods for collecting zero-party data:

  • Surveys. Perhaps the easiest approach is to put small, voluntary quizzes in front of site visitors. YouTube used to do this for a while, with questions appearing before videos instead of pre-roll ads. These mini-surveys usually involved a simple question, for example, “Which of these brands do you have a favorable opinion of?” YouTube could then use this information to build a more personalized ad-targeting profile for each individual.
  • Satisfaction rating. Another common technique is to include a small satisfaction scale next to posts on social media platforms. This usually involves giving a user a scale of one to five, through which they can quickly express how happy they are to see a certain post in their newsfeed. While the data generated from such a survey might be less relevant to a site’s advertising strategy, it helps companies like Instagram and TikTok work out how to keep you on the site longer, based on what you enjoy seeing in your feed.
  • Mandatory question and answer fields. The options above are fairly unobtrusive and are entirely optional for the user. That’s not always the case with zero-party data, because sometimes companies can lock features behind questions. For example, to connect to Wi-Fi on public transport, you might have to answer a series of questions about your commuting habits. It only takes a few seconds, but you can’t access the service if you leave any fields blank.

Zero-party data vs. first-party data vs. third-party data

The main difference between zero-party, first-party, and third-party data is the level of users’ agency – whether the data sharing happens willingly or if the user information is collected without them being aware of it. In this respect, zero-party data is the data that a user shares willingly.

The story with first-party data is a little different – brands collect it indirectly through the user’s activity on the brand’s platform, like website visits or purchases. For example, when you use Facebook, the site monitors your activity and collects information about what profiles you click on, which posts you pause to read, or where you upload from. Facebook uses this data to target you more effectively with ads, promoted posts, and other data-driven content.

Third-party data is even more removed from user intentions. It’s also used for advertising and consumer profiling, but the information is gathered by third-party companies and then sold to the entity that wants to use it. For instance, your internet service provider might log information about your browsing habits and then sell that data to another company, which can use it to target you with personalized ads.

Here’s a breakdown of the differences between zero-party, first-party, and third-party user data:

Zero-party dataFirst-party dataThird-party data
Direct relationship with the customerIndirect customer relationshipIndirect customer relationship
Collected with consentCollected with or without consent, depending on the provider’s practices and the regulatory environmentCollected with or without consent, depending on the provider’s practices and the regulatory environment
Individual dataIndividual dataAggregate data
Highly accurate and reliableHighly accurate and reliableMuch less accurate or reliable
Not sharedNot sharedShared with many companies
  • Product preferences
  • Customer interests
  • Communication preferences
  • Purchase intentions
  • Account configurations
  • Feedback and reviews
  • Examples:
  • Customer email address
  • Phone number
  • Customer behavior on the website
  • Interaction with the brand on social media
  • Purchase history
  • Support history
  • Customer feedback
  • Loyalty program info
  • Examples:
  • Age
  • Income
  • Education
  • Location data
  • Social media trends and interactions
  • Websites visited
  • Purchase history
  • Survey responses
  • Are there benefits to zero-party data?

    Advocates of zero-party data gathering say that it is empowering for customers, offers autonomy, and even builds customer loyalty. If a customer intentionally shares their data with a company, it allows for a more personalized experience without the company using invasive data-gathering practices like app tracking.

    However, it’s important to remember that this strategy is less about the customer experience and more about collecting monetizable data. The information you give a company through a survey or a short quiz will be stored in a database somewhere and ultimately used to generate revenue for that company.

    It’s also worth underlining the fact that most companies won’t rely solely on the zero-party data strategy. They might augment their data-gathering practices with surveys and pop-up questions, but first-party data collection will still happen behind the scenes. When you answer a question before a YouTube video, you’re just providing additional data on top of all the information it is already collecting about you.

    Examples of zero-party data

    Zero-party data is any customer data given voluntarily by the user. This information includes:

    • Browsing habits – How often do you use certain services?
    • Customer satisfaction – How happy are you with particular products or features?
    • Market research – What opinion do you have of specific brands?
    • Personal data – What is your date of birth?
    • Product preferences – What types of products are you most interested in?
    • Customer interests – What hobbies or activities do you enjoy in your free time?
    • Communication preferences – How would you like to be contacted and receive product news?
    • Purchase intentions – Are you planning to buy any products or services in the near future? If so, which ones?
    • Account configurations – How have you set up your preferences or settings in your account for a personalized experience?
    • Feedback and reviews – What feedback can you provide about your experience with our product or service?

    These are just a few examples of information that could be extracted with a zero-party data strategy. Any information you directly provide to a website or company technically falls into this category.

    Websites could acquire this information using polls, surveys, satisfaction ratings, and even gamified questions and answers. If applied in a smart and visually appealing way, these strategies for getting user information add to the interactivity of the website and feel like an inseparable part of user experience. The user feels empowered and shares information without questioning its purpose.

    PRO TIP: If you don’t want to provide zero-party data but have to fill in certain fields to access a page, you can input false information. Unless stated otherwise in user agreements, you are under no obligation to give companies accurate data.

    How to avoid data collection and tracking

    Even though you share your zero-party data with the companies voluntarily, the data is still being collected and used to benefit the company. If you’d like to limit how much businesses and service providers are able to track you online, try taking the following steps:

    • Don’t agree to all cookies and tracking settings. When you visit a website for the first time, a pop-up box will appear, asking you to consent to the use of third-party cookies, tracking pixels, and online trackers. Most people just click “accept all” without thinking, but in many cases, you can reject cookies entirely or at least choose an option with fewer trackers and data gathering.
    • Don’t provide zero-party data. As explained above, giving companies zero-party data just adds to the amount of information they log about you — it doesn’t replace invasive data-gathering practices. With that in mind, you can ignore a website’s attempts to extract zero-party data from you with surveys and polls, or if a response is mandatory, provide intentionally false information.
    • Use a tracker blocker. With NordVPN’s Threat Protection Pro feature, you can block trackers, preventing cross-site monitoring. Many websites plant trackers in your browser so they can get information about your activity after you leave their page, but Threat Protection Pro shields you from this.
    • Use a VPN. NordVPN boosts your overall privacy and security, keeping your data encrypted while in transit. It also masks your IP address, making your online actions much harder to track across websites.
    • Review and adjust app permissions. Regularly check the permissions you’ve granted to apps on your phone or computer, particularly regarding location data and microphone access, and adjust them to the minimum necessary for the app to function. Revoking app permission to access your smartphone’s microphone helps to prevent cross-device tracking. For more on the topic, read NordVPN’s in-depth article on its research on cross-device tracking.
    • Read privacy policies and opt out where possible. While reading privacy policies can be tedious, understanding how your data is used and shared is crucial. Muster up the will to go through the policies and look for options to opt out of data sharing or tracking.

    User data is extremely valuable for companies – marketing and sales strategies are based on it. So take control of your data with permissions, privacy policies, and cybersecurity tools. When it comes to online privacy, being proactive always pays off.

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