What’s PII and Why Should I Care About It?

Lest you think I’ve just misspelled “pie,” PII (pronounced “P-I-I”) is an initialism for Personally Identifiable Information, and is something you might want to gather in the course of running any number of surveys. Before you run out and start asking for it, though, let’s look at what it is and some best practices for obtaining it.

What’s PII?

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PII is any kind of information that can identify an individual. This includes email addresses, phone numbers, employee identification numbers, government-issued identification numbers, credit card numbers, or any other information that could be used to trace back to an individual.

What it does NOT include is other demographic information, such as gender, race, ethnicity, employment status, marital status, etc. – even geographic information that does not ask for a specific address, such as asking in which neighborhood, city, or region a respondent resides. This information can be gathered anonymously without asking for PII. This is also the kind of information that can be used to group respondents for reporting purposes, such as looking at responses based on age or gender. PII does NOT lend itself to grouping respondents because it’s too specific to each individual.


Best Practices for Collecting PII

The very first thing to consider when you’re thinking about asking for any kind of PII in a form or survey is to ask whether it is absolutely necessary for you to achieve your survey’s objectives. For example, if you’re asking a general customer satisfaction study, do you really need everyone to enter their contact information for you to have an effective study? Often, the answer is, “No.”

There are times when the answer is, “Yes.” For example, following up on a customer satisfaction survey where the results were all low; there are a few best practices that, if followed, can help mitigate possible ramifications that stem from collecting such information.

  1. Let respondents know in advance you will be asking for their contact information. I’ve taken many surveys where, just before the end of the survey, I was asked if I wanted to provide my contact information for a potential follow-up. Sometimes, when I have really cared about the topic being studied, I’ve said yes. In some cases where I wasn’t given an option, I’ve dropped out of the study because I didn’t see the need for the organization to keep my contact information in association with the answers I’d given in the survey.
  2. Let them know how you will be using their contact information. I think we can all agree it’s really annoying to find that your contact information has been collected and used for a purpose you did not agree to. This practice can really leave a bad impression on current and potential customers. So, be up-front about what you’ll be doing with the information you gather, whether it’s for future sales contacts or only for a follow-up specific to the respondent’s survey answers.
  3. Include a link to your organization’s privacy policy. This lends more credibility and accountability to how you are intending to use the PII you gather.
  4. Include contact information if there are questions. Include the contact information for whomever is responsible either for the survey or for the privacy policy, or both. This gives those with concerns an opportunity to ask questions of those who can best answer them.
Courtesy Pixabay.
Courtesy Pixabay.

Where do I put this stuff?

There are four primary locations to include verbiage about collecting PII: the invitation, introduction, question text, and in the thank you text. If you’re using a form, be sure to include it in the form introduction. If you’re using the QuestionPro mobile app and collecting information in an area without a network collection, either be sure your interviewers are telling respondents about collecting the PII, or else be sure it’s included in the form or survey you’re providing, so that respondents aren’t surprised.

  1. Invitation. Will you be asking for contact information during the study? Let respondents know in the invitation. This wording can be something like, “Towards the end of the study, you will have a chance to provide your contact information for us to follow up with you. This is entirely optional.” Include the link to your privacy policy and the contact information for the study here, too, so that respondents who are interested can review it before they decide to participate in the study.
  2. Introduction. Repeat what you said in the invitation during the introduction. Be up-front with how you will be using the contact information, when you will be collecting it, and include the link to your privacy policy and the contact information for respondents to ask questions.
  3. In the question text where you’re asking for the PII. Just like a good speech, follow the rule, “Tell them, tell them again, then tell them what you told them.” If your respondents have skimmed the invitation and the introduction, this is your chance to tell them once more than you will be collecting contact information, why you’re collecting it, how it will be used once it’s been collected, and where they can ask questions.
  4. In the thank you text. In the thank you, include your privacy policy link, the contacts for the survey (including the privacy policy individual if you have one), and how you will be using the PII you’ve collected. If you’re using a standard thank you message for all respondents, be sure to include something along the lines of, “If you have provided your contact information, thank you! You can expect….”

Why Should I Care?

Depending on the information being collected, there can be legal issues around collecting, storing, and using PII. But more than that, being up-front about collecting PII and how you’ll be using PII can help instill confidence in your existing and potential customers. If you’re being open about the PII you’re collecting and how you’re using it, respondents will likely have a higher level of trust in your organization.