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psychological targeting
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Ad Targeting Based on Personality Traits? The New Frontier: Psychological Targeting

Marketers have been targeting (and retargeting) us for years based on our online behaviors, our preferences, our demographics, and even our geolocations. For the marketing professional, reaching the right audience, at the right time, and in the right place is critical to success. For the consumer, relevant advertising helps streamline our lives, providing us with unquestionable, albeit creepy, convenience.

Psychological targeting is the powerful practice of tailoring ads to audience personality traits and is commonly based on an individual’s digital footprint. While the practice is arguably still in its early stages, large scale platforms (e.g. Facebook & YouTube) already incorporate behavioral targeting – a stepping stone to psychological targeting.

In 2017, four researchers from Columbia University, Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Cambridge released a study on psychological targeting as an effective approach to digital mass persuasion. In one experiment, they were able to develop an extrovert audience and an introvert audience, based solely on correlations with known personality traits and the pages users ‘liked’ on Facebook.

In the study, they advertised the same beauty product, with two different ad variations. One ad targeting extroverts, with a woman dancing and the text: “Dance like no one’s watching (but they totally are).” The other ad targeting introverts, with a woman looking in the mirror and the text: “Beauty doesn’t have to shout.” In the end, the results indicated a much higher engagement and CTR for those audiences who were matched with their personality type.

Another method of developing psychological profiles lies in social listening – my own personal area of expertise (and first data love). Researchers are able correlate specific terms used in social media posts with personality traits and emotional states. For example, identifying an audience group with an “open” or “trusting” personality.

Previously, researchers were limited to questionnaires and extremely small sample pools when examining psychological traits. Now, our digital footprints are so comprehensive that old school methods are no longer needed. In fact, a study done by the University of California found that computers are even more accurate than friends and family at judging a person’s personality.

When handled ethically, psychological targeting can help us better connect with people, and deliver a message that is not only relevant but resonates with them. Gone is the age of blanket targeting.

However, when handled unethically, psychological targeting can be used to exploit weakness in people’s characters and persuade them to take action against their own best interest. There is always the potential for data to be misused but, as Sandra Matz, an expert in the field says, “It’s important not to judge a field by its worst actors.”

While we aren’t going to begin running personality tests and running in-depth analyses on the psychological profiles of our audience, we are doing variations of this already. Whenever we employ the use of Interest targeting on Facebook or Trade Desk flights, craft our ad copy with a strong CTA to appeal to our target, or work with specific online creators to relate to our audience and build trust, we are tapping into the behavior and psychology of our target.

So, where can we start? Firstly, we can continue to be open to experts in the field. We’ve already begun relying on their expertise in our work with Facebook and other key partners. Studies have shown this is particularly helpful in the healthcare area, and marketing to audiences with motivations in mind. Think of our Lung Cancer campaign – not everyone will quit smoking or get screened for the same reason. Having a personalized message will increase the audience’s likeliness to engage.

Secondly, we can tailor our creative to various audiences within the same demographic. We have begun tailoring to the platform, but can we take personalization to a new level with the creative itself? We have done it previously with geolocation (e.g. Project Roadblock and including the targeted state in ad copy) and even more recently with Google & YouTube targeting.

Any actions we take must keep the nation’s trust levels in mind – particularly those applying to the technology sector. Thanks to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, we better understand the trust levels in social media platforms and know the great importance of transparency. The road will be long, and most certainly tough, but with a mission as critical as the Ad Council’s, we owe it to ourselves to try.

To hear more, check out Sandra Matz’s TED Talk on Psychological Targeting on YouTube.



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