What Can We Learn From a Single Click?

A lot more than you might think.  Your digital footprint, comprised of the websites you visit, the purchases you make, the songs you listen to and what you like on Facebook or retweet on Twitter can reveal a great deal about your personality. The ability to record and store vast amounts of data on individuals allows corporations and marketers to use personalized persuasion to influence your actions on a deep and often troubling level.

In a newly published paper, Sandra Matz shows that these digital footprints can be used to influence effectively the behavior of large groups of people. “By targeting consumers with persuasive messages that are tailored to their core psychological profiles (e.g. the degree to which they are extroverted or introverted) it is possible to significantly increase the likelihood that people will take a specific action, such as clicking on an ad or purchasing the promoted product” Matz told LRN Media.

You might be thinking: This isn’t ‘new. Corporations have long used psychology and demographic data to target customers with personalized messages. And you’d be partially right. But as Matz explains what is new, “is the ability to identify and target audiences based on psychological traits that reflect people’s preferences and needs at a much deeper and instinctual level. Prior targeting might have focused on demographic or behavioral attributes such as ‘women ages 18-45’ who searched for the term ‘Soccer World Cup on Google between 2-4pm’. Psychological targeting, however, can focus on a person’s fundamental character traits and psychological needs, which are known to explain and predict preferences in a broad variety of contexts.”

To carry out their study, which targeted more than 3.5 million users on Facebook, the researchers sent out persuasive appeals in the form of Facebook ads that either aligned with or ran counter to the users’ psychological profiles. They found that “matching the content of persuasive messages to individuals’ psychological characteristics resulted in up to 40% more clicks and up to 50% more purchases than their mismatching or un-personalized messages.” As expected extroverts responded more positively to advertising messages having fun, dancing, and social situations, while introverts preferred quiet

“Our hope is that these findings can support the public debate on this topic by showing both the general public and key decision makers – such as elected officials and business leaders – just how important and timely this topic is” Matz told LRN Media. “Our belief is that by having an open and transparent discussion, solutions and checks and balances can be developed in the form of policies, regulations and technological counter-measures, which will ensure that psychological targeting serves as a driver for good rather than evil.”

The study, Psychological targeting as an effective approach to digital mass persuasion, was co authored by M. Kosinski, G. Nave, and D. J. Stillwell.

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