Photo by  Tony Reid  on  Unsplash

Photo by Tony Reid on Unsplash

It’s always surprising to learn about how similar we all are, but businesses often care more about the differences between us. It’s all about “target audiences”, “customer profiling”, and “personalization”. Lumping customers into a single group and holding the same umbrella over them is not as effective as detailing their differences and using tailored strategies to profit from them. Showing everyone an advert for a million-dollar luxury yacht is not as efficient as showing the yacht to high-income groups while promoting cheaper holiday breaks for low-income groups.

When content is personalized to our own tastes and circumstances, it means we are being shown what is most relevant to us. It minimizes our workload in accessing the information we want or need. If we open up our internet browser to buy a new pair of shoes, it’s far more convenient to immediately see an advert for our favorite style of shoes than to search several outlets to find them ourselves. The more information that companies have about us, the better they can filter out the irrelevant content that we do not want to see.

You may already be thinking about the potential hazards of companies knowing too much about us, and you’d be right to raise that concern. Privacy is an important priority in our lives, and the more of it we give up, the less protection we have against those who want to mould or mislead us. But the frequent scare stories around this issue make it easy to forget the ways in which selling off some of our personal data is actually streamlining our lives. I’m not arguing that we no longer need to worry. I’m arguing that it’s worth keeping sight of why we make these sacrifices.

The major online services that you use every single day, but don’t pay for upfront, are likely to be making their money by selling the data they gather on you to other businesses. Those businesses use your data to show you adverts that fit your online activity patterns and personal information. The better they can tailor their content to suit you, the more likely they are to sell you a product at a minimal advertising cost. They want to pump their conversion rates — the probability that you will buy the product when you see their advert — as high as they will possibly go. To do that, they want to know everything about you. And one particularly useful pot of gold may be your personality.

A team of academics wanted to test just how useful your personality could be to an advertiser. They didn’t need to interview users or even send them a questionnaire in order to assess their personalities. They only needed to analyze one important piece of information: Facebook Likes.

When we Like a piece of content on Facebook, we’re not just expressing that we like that specific feature. We are revealing deeper aspects of our identity, because the things we like and enjoy depend on our personalities. If we are extraverted rather than introverted, we may be more likely to enjoy social content. If we have high rather than low openness, we may be more likely to enjoy adventurous content. The truckload of Likes that Facebook has on each user allows them to analyze that data and infer a user’s personality. In fact, that data allows a computer to predict our personality better than our friends or family can.

So by assessing our personality through our Facebook Likes, the academics ran three experiments, all focused on identifying whether messages that fit Facebook users’ personalities would be more likely to convince them to buy a product.

In the first study, they created two versions of a beauty product advert: one they believed would be ideal for extraverted users and another that was designed for introverted users. The extraverted adverts would use messages that appeal to an outgoing and sociable nature such as “Dance like no one’s watching (but they totally are)”. In contrast, the introverted adverts would lean toward messages targeting a quieter and more withdrawn demeanor, such as “Beauty doesn’t have to shout”.

Their advertising campaign reached over 3 million Facebook users. When the advert matched a user’s personal level of extraversion, the researchers found that the user was 50% more likely to buy the product than when the advert was mismatched. So personality-based targeting allows adverts to connect with users on a deeper level, and is more likely to sway them toward clicking the buy button.

Photo by  Joshua Earle  on  Unsplash

The result above was more than just a lucky shot. The researchers ran a second experiment, this time with an advert for a crossword app, which was tailored in its messaging to people who were either high or low in openness. The high-openness messages appealed to users’ curiosity and imagination (e.g. “Aristoteles? The Seychelles? Unleash your creativity and challenge your imagination with an unlimited number of crossword puzzles!”). The low-openness messages instead appealed to tradition and familiarity (e.g. “Settle in with an all-time favorite! The crossword puzzle that has challenged players for generations.”).

Once again, after reaching over 84,000 users on Facebook and Instagram, the adverts that fit a user’s personality were over 30% more likely to convince the user to install the app than conflicting adverts. However, this time, the effect was primarily driven by those people who were low in openness. The high-openness people seemed to care less about which advert they saw, and were equally likely to install for both messages.

In a final third experiment, they decided to put their theory to a direct test in adjusting an existing company’s advert messaging in line with user personality, and examining whether it improved user interactions and conversion rates. The company in question was trying to sell a bubble shooter game and they usually targeted audiences who had downloaded similar games, using their standard advert: “Ready? FIRE! Grab the latest puzzle shooter now! Intense action and brain-bending puzzles!”. The researchers analyzed the personalities of the target audience and learned that they were highly introverted. So they created an advert that instead probed those users with a less excited and outgoing message: “Phew! Hard day? How about a puzzle to wind down with?”.

Over half a million Facebook users saw the adverts, and the researchers replicated their previous results by showing that the new personality-adjusted advert attracted more clicks, app installs, and a significantly better conversion rate than the standard advert.

* * *

Persuasion convinces people to change their behavior, but there are many variables that determine exactly how persuasive a message is. The more of those variables that an organization can get their hands on, the more intuitively and effectively they can speak to us. I’ve previously written about how well Facebook knows us, but I wanted to give the issue of targeted marketing some more comprehensive airtime, especially because adverts are rapidly moving in the direction of increasing personalization.

We all have different hobbies, interests, and temperaments, so we are attracted to different features of the world: some of us are drawn more toward a quiet night with a book while others are drawn more toward a loud and crowded party. We are also more easily convinced by people who have similar characteristics to us: when an acquaintance shares our age group and our interests, we find them more relatable, and we allow them more room and opportunity to persuade us. This all feeds into the power of personally-tailored adverts and messages.

Clearly, a personalized approach to content curation is influential, but perhaps it is also a little divisive. Most of us bury ourselves in social bubbles and curated news feeds, as we interact exclusively with our personal interests or networks. The deeper we root into social networks and targeted content, the more resistant our bubbles become. It takes effort and willpower to break out of a bubble, because we don’t particularly want to do it; we are engaged by personalization precisely because it gives us so much of what we want, and that’s why it’s so profitable for businesses.

However, breaking free occasionally and exploring the world beyond our bubble is likely to be an adventure we won’t regret. Whether it’s uncomfortable political commentary, new stimulating hobbies, or adventurous artistic tastes, venturing over to the other side of the wall gives us a much-needed refreshing escape from our tightening leashes.

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