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Personality Based Targeting: Will Marketing Come Full Circle?

Is marketing coming full circle? In the days of the bazaar and the mom-and-pop store the shrewd shopkeeper read the personality of the shopper in seconds and tailored his sales pitch accordingly.

As marketing moved into the age of mass media, brands and impersonal retailing, the holy grail of marketing became to replicate the personalised selling of yore. Endless research and rumination on the deepest desires and wants of consumers. Endless crafting and re-crafting of the 5 Ps of the marketing mix.

But at heart, in the age of mass media personalised marketing was an oxymoron.

The paradigm is beginning to shift with the arrival and ascendance of digital media and Big Data. And as Artificial Intelligence goes mainstream is the age of personalised marketing once again upon us? Even before its full fruition, the debate over personalised marketing is beginning to rage.

With the Cambridge Analytica imbroglio, it is beginning to dawn on people that the tools of personalised marketing could be used beyond selling products and services into negative purposes that go far beyond getting you to buy stuff that you don’t really need. It could become a tool of rapidly and effectively sowing discord and strife.

But then the tools of marketing have always enabled charlatans to misuse them. In days of yore, the bazaar was the epicentre of riots. Mass media has provided megaphones  to dictators and tyrants. Technological progress always has a flip side. That is the price we pay for being kicked out of the garden of Eden and endlessly striving to get back.

The Broad Contours of Personality Marketing

Personality is defined as individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving –  a mix of traits that determine the individuals interpret the world and how they subsequently behave.

Is there currently a widely agreed upon framework for classifying personalities?

Yes there is – a framework called the “Big Five” or “Five Factor” – the factors forming the acronym – OCEAN

The key use of personality classification is that it allows marketers and communicators better engage individuals by crafting a message that better empathises and resonates with them. The use of this extends beyond the commercial realm of selling products and services to promoting good causes and habits – say public health agencies promoting healthier behaviour.

Until the age of Big Data personalities was tied to questionnaires.  Answering to this questionnaires was prone to unintentional  and some times intentional misrepresentations. Plus administering these questionnaires required resources, making it an exercise difficult to scale.

With the arrival of the digital age all that changed. The field of computational social science started providing digital psychometrics based on an individuals digital footprint – browsing history, social media engagements etc. Based on large datasets researchers identified empirical relationships between specific digital footprints and specific psychological traits. For example in the context of the US, the liking of curly fries, thunderstorms and Morgan Freeman’s voice correlated strongly with being highly intelligent!  In India, once we get our act together in digital psychometrics, we would find that being a fan of Rafi, loving idli sambar and hating Maruti cars correlated strongly with having conservative political views.

One study found that by correlating with Facebook likes offered a better judgement of a person’s personality than those arrived at by workers, friends and even family members.

The maturing of AI will lead to even greater depth and accuracy. IBM.s Watson Personality Insights, for example, uses Natural Language Processing to work on  text written by specific users – posts, tweets, blogs, e-mails etc. to unearth personality – values, traits and even desires. An earlier post on this blog – Marketing to Bots – The Coming Paradigm Shift – envisages a day when an individual voluntarily hands over control of all buying of products and services to AI engines  (futuristic versions of Alexa and Siri) because they understand him and his wants and needs much better than even he himself does and marries this with almost perfect, complete and instantaneous of all the choices on offer. A situation where brand need to market not to the individual but to AI engines. Is the world of B2AI the next stop on the marketing train we are riding?

Proof is coming in of the effectiveness of digital psychometrics based personality targeting. A field study conducted by S.C. Matz et al  with 3.5 million individuals established that matching the content of persuasive appeals to individuals’ psychological characteristics significantly altered behaviour in terms of clicks and purchases.

Digital psychometrics based personality targeted marketing now has moved sufficiently mainstream for marketers and marketing services agencies to start making major investments in the area.

The Ogilvy Centre for Behavioural Science is investing in an Applied Motivational Operating Systems (AMOS) which identifies cognitive motivations and barriers and uses this understanding to enable a customer journey as she negotiates choices.

As digital footprints allows us to build personality profiles of almost every individual and digital and social media platforms enables us to cost-effectively target them one-to-one, personality targeted marketing is now a realistic possibility. However most personality targeted marketing as it is being practiced today is missing one all-important ingredient – customer permission.

In its first generation avatar personality marketing is following the mass marketing playbook – ambush individuals with messages that are based on information they did not share voluntarily and which interfere with whatever it is that they are doing. It is like shopkeeper instead of waiting for you to walk into the shop, suddenly appears in your car pitching products that you enquired for another shop, a week ago. Completely counter-productive, one would think.

Instead personality targeted marketing must invest in consumers permitting collection of information about them, even volunteering information on purchase behaviour and intent. A consumer would do it if she believes in return she will get tailor made offers that make life better and more fun for her. In other words, personality marketing should be about consumers pulling messages tailored to their needs and not about pushing at them sneaky messages.


Ashoke Agarrwal

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