Psychological targeting: the case for

Sandra Matz, assistant professor of management and organisational behaviour at Columbia Business School in New York, and co-author of Fast Forward Files, explains how psychological targeting can be used for good as well as bad.

One of Boris Johnson’s first acts, when he became Prime Minister in July, was to run hundreds of ads on Facebook platforms propagating key political messages and garnering voter opinion.

These online campaigning activities have already sparked concern about the way the data they collect is used. In the wake of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, social media microtargeting and psychological targeting have developed a troubling reputation. The UK’s data protection watchdog, the ICO, has warned that when used for political purposes, social media microtargeting could undermine trust in democracy. It has also warned that behavioural ad targeting does not comply with European privacy law.

However, is psychological targeting all bad? Prior to the Cambridge Analytica controversy, psychological targeting was an aspect of marketing that few people knew much about. Put simply, it is the targeting of people based on not only on their past behaviours and explicitly stated preferences, but also, on their underlying psychological profiles.

Cambridge Analytica claimed to use personality trait science to better tailor messages for its clients. Beyond traditional personalization based on demographics, or consumer self-expressed desires, this kind of customization claims to interpret basic human drives and match issue messaging with personality traits.

Behavioural scientist Cass Sunstein has cautioned that there are sound uses for personal data on social media if handled ethically. I believe personality marketing can be one of them. Personality insights and other aspects of behavioural science, offer opportunities to better connect with individuals, and if done ethically, it can be beneficial for consumers and businesses alike. Personality marketing can create a better match for products, services or experiences. And in sectors like health care, it could have even more positive effects, with better messaging leading to healthier behaviours.

It’s important not to judge a field by its worst actors. Marketers, communicators, and the public alike deserve a better understanding of personality marketing — what it is, how it works, and why it matters.
For marketers, communicators, and even public health agencies looking to promote healthier behaviours in large populations (diet, nutrition, exercise, quit smoking), the potential payoff of using personality science is to be able to better match how you engage individuals by personality profile, and to predict behaviours by personality traits. No marketer wants to present a message that is off-key or irrelevant; personality science offers the chance to empathize with individuals, and engage them with the message, advertisement, or content in a way that is more likely to resonate with them.

Personality tests: transitioning to digital psychometrics
Until very recently, the assessment of psychological traits (also known as psychometrics) was almost inseparably tied to questionnaires. It was only about five years ago that the newly-established field of computational social science provided a different answer: digital psychometrics. Instead of relying only on people’s responses to self-reported questionnaires, scientists started using people’s digital footprints – their Facebook Likes, Tweets, browsing histories, and more – to make inferences about their personality (with their consent). Based on large datasets containing both people’s responses to traditional psychometric questionnaires and the information captured on their Facebook profiles, researchers were able to identify empirical relationships between specific digital footprints and specific psychological traits.

What are the benefits of personality marketing?
Again, the theory is that if you can match the tone and framing of the communications or marketing with the personality profiles and thinking styles of potential customers, patients, voters, or those whose behaviour you’d like to change, you can boost effectiveness.

Tailored communication has proven highly successful in the context of health care and health communication. We know that people show higher compliance rates when receiving messages that are customized to their individual motivations, and we also know that such messages help in changing a number of cancer-related behaviours, including smoking, dieting, exercising, and regular cancer screenings. What if we could not only increase the chances that a customer buys a handbag, but improve their quality of health or the uptake of flu shots or vaccinations by tailoring the messaging to different personalities and cognitive styles?

What does the evidence say?
The scientific evidence is consistent and clear: one can increase the effectiveness of marketing messages and other types of persuasive communication by tailoring them to people’s psychological profiles (see the compendium of studies here curated by IBM).

The problem is that these results come primarily from the lab. Therefore, the usefulness of these insights for real-life customized marketing remained limited. The lab is not the same as the market, and questionnaires are not the same as personality inferences based on internet data. But there is reason to believe the science will hold up at scale.

I pioneered a study to determine whether the application of digital psychometrics to tailored communication could significantly impact the effectiveness of large-scale, real-life advertising campaigns on Facebook. While Facebook does not offer direct personality targeting, it allows marketers to do so indirectly via the option of targeting people based on interests. The results of three campaigns reaching over 3.5m users suggest that personality-matched advertising creatives significantly outperform their mismatched or neutral counterparts. In other words, in practice, this sort of social media-based personality marketing does appear to work.

However, in light of Cambridge Analytica, and claims that its psychological targeting tipped the election, we caution against any extreme claims related to personality marketing. The early evidence may be promising, but the field is still relatively young.

Ethical Concerns
The essentials of gathering and using personality traits ethically should follow the general guidelines of other behavioural science research of consumers, employees or patients. They include: transparency of intent and usage; abiding by privacy laws and regulations; and aligning researcher/marketer interests with those of respondents (in other words, help them rather than exploit them).

That last principle is the right starting point for marketers: is your use of personality research actually making your customers better off, or just helping you? As the field evolves, marketers should look to the research community for inspiration and guidance on transparency. And, of course, businesses must comply with the law.