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

Zero-party data gathering is a new strategy that websites are using to collect information about their users. In this post, we’ll offer a clear zero-party data definition, explain how companies collect zero-party data, and offer some tips on how to protect yourself from online tracking.

Malcolm Higgins

Malcolm Higgins

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

What is zero-party data?

Zero-party data is information that customers and internet users voluntarily share with companies and website providers. Contrast this with the other ways consumer/user data is gathered.

  • First-party data gathering: This term encompasses any customer data collected directly by a website or service provider from user activity on its platform. When you use Facebook, for example, the site monitors your activity: what profiles you click on, which posts you pause to read, where you upload from, for example. It use this data to target you more effectively with adverts, promoted posts, and other data-driven content.
  • Third-party data gathering: Third-party data is 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 example, 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.

With this context, it’s easier to understand what makes zero-party data different. It’s information that you choose to give to a company, allowing it to provide more personalized experiences with marketing and ads.

Examples of zero-party data

Zero-party data is any customer data given voluntarily by the user. This information could include (but is not limited to):

  • 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?)

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

The importance of zero-party data: use cases

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.

Before we examine the pros and cons of zero-party data collection, we should explain how it is gathered in the first place. Here are three common methods for gathering zero-party data:

  • Surveys. Perhaps the easiest approach is to put small, voluntary quizzes in front of site visitors. YouTube has been doing this for a while, with questions appearing before videos instead of pre-roll ads. These mini-surveys usually involve a simple question, for example, “Which of these brands do you have a favorable opinion of?” YouTube can 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.

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

Zero-party data vs. first-party data

It’s easy to get confused between zero-party data and first-party data. To understand the difference, we can look at how the data is gathered.

Let’s imagine that a social media provider wants to collect both types of data in order to more effectively target them with ads. To get the zero-party data, the provider creates a small single-question survey that pops up in the user’s newsfeed, asking the user which hotel brand they have a positive opinion about. If the user answers the survey, the zero-party data is logged in the company’s database.

Then the provider uses monitoring systems built into the app to track the user’s activity. It notices that the user is viewing content related to a specific holiday destination — guides and videos about Greece, for example — and this behavior pattern is also recorded. However, unlike the survey, the user never actively chose to tell the app provider that they were considering a holiday in Greece. This is first-party data.

As this example illustrates, these two kinds of data are not mutually exclusive. Companies can use both to get a better understanding of their customers.

Is zero-party data good for customers?

A lot of the online discussion around zero-party data gathering — especially within the marketing space — focuses on the idea that it is more empowering for customers. Advocates say that zero-party data offers consumers autonomy and even builds customer loyalty. If a customer intentionally shares their data with a company, this allows for a more personalized experience without the company using invasive data gathering practices.

However, it’s important to remember that in the final analysis, 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 used ultimately to generate revenue for that company.

It’s also worth underlining the fact that most companies won’t rely solely on a 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.

How to avoid tracking

If you’d like to limit how much companies 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 or if a response is mandatory, provide intentionally false information.
  • Use a tracking blocker. With NordVPN’s Threat Protection 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 shields you from this. NordVPN also boosts your overall privacy and security, keeping your data encrypted while in transit.

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Malcolm Higgins
Malcolm Higgins Malcolm Higgins
Malcolm is a content writer specializing in cybersecurity and tech news. With a background in journalism and a passion for digital privacy, he hopes his work will empower people to control their own data.