Why we do what we do: You are Not so Special — The Forer Effect

While the quest for personalization may be newer to some members of the online marketing world, the reality is that is a concept that is old as sales. People have been trying to convince others that they alone were getting a special deal or that their message was meant just for them. One of the great practitioners of this concept was P.T. Barnum, who famously billed his circus as “we’ve got something for everyone.” On some level everyone understands the appeal of being special and of having someone take the time to tell me something that is unique to just me. The greatest salespeople though understood one of the great ironies of personalization, which is that general statements, when given in context, often are treated as deeply personal and are extremely powerful. This concept is known as the Forer effect, or more directly, the tendency of people to interpret statements as being accurate for them personally, even when they are not.

The Forer effect gets its name from B.R. Forer and came about from a series of experiments that he performed in 1948. His famous study involved giving a personality test to all of his students. He told them that they were all receiving unique personality analysis, and they were to rate that analysis on a scale of 0 to 5. All of the students actually received the exact same results, using such lines as, “While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them.” and “You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.“. Despite the exact same statements being made, his students average score for his “analysis” was 4.26.

The favorite trick of psychics, conference speakers, and astrologists, this psychological bias is important to understand, especially when thinking about the concept of personalization. General statements hidden to look like targeted messages have much greater impact than direct statements, and are far more likely to increase belief in the speaker. Personalization, as it turns out, is about not being personal, or at least not to the Nth degree. Personalization is about the match of the general and the pseudo specific, and it is about taking that message to the largest group possible, not just the ones that directly match the message. The more we can measure different types of messages, and the more we can find the largest groups that respond to them, the better our results, since functionally the more targeted the message, the less overall gain we get to improving total site performance.

So you might ask why is this so important in the quest for personalization? This bias tells us that overly thinking personalization and designing a large number of specific messages is both a waste of resources, but also far less likely to create a positive outcome. It also tells us that the message itself does not have to match the rules that dictate the outcome; general statements have an impact for a large variety of people, not just a specific targeted group.

As you start thinking about and tackling your personalization programs, it is important to understand the nature of why you are doing these actions. Barnum knew that he was there to sell his circus, and every action he did had only that outcome in mind. He was one of the most famous practitioners of a single success definition, and he knew that no matter what he did needed to drive more to spend more on his circus. The same is true of all online efforts. Your goal in the end is to make more money, and the key is not to focus on a specific message, or to over rely on experts or correlative information to tell you when and how to target. The key is to test out all sorts of possible content, and to see how you can best present them to people to allow you the efficiency of largest group of people possible.

This is why a message about a specific product may work best for Firefox users, why time of day may be the best match for your re-targeting content, and why smaller segments are so inefficient. It is also one of the main reasons why targeting content without the discovery process of the value is far more likely to lose you revenue than generate more. It turns out the more you try to narrow a message or assume an outcome, the worse your results will be. Somewhat specific messages work for far larger groups than you could ever imagine, and you only know the true power when you let go of your own ego and preconceived notions and explore.

Stop thinking of personalization as trying to build a one on one message with a customer, that does not work and is extremely inefficient. Instead explore the various ways that you can create different content, and then explore who the largest groups are that you can present that to. This means always going through a discovery process of figuring out what matters, and then figuring out for whom. You may want to target to only people who looked at brand X, or page Y, or who have done a come to your site 3 times without purchasing, but that in no way means that you should limit the message to just that group. The less control you exert on the specifics of a message, and the more you are open to new possibilities, the more likely you are to find larger and more meaningful outcomes.

Explore what the value is of different messages and of taking it to different groups. You have powerful tools at your disposal to do just that, to discover and take these more general statements to large groups. From simple A/B tests all the way to automated machine learning, the real key to value comes from how you think about the problems, not in your ability to just find a group and target to it. Not only that, but you have the ability to measure the efficiency of various discoveries and techniques against each other. You are not limited to creating these stories, or just targeting to a specific persona, you have so much more at your disposal if you just allow yourself and others the flexibility to learn and grow.

P.T. Barnum is also famous for how he could get people to pay for anything, with the most famous example being the egress. It wasn’t meant for anyone specific, but he could get just about anyone to fall prey to the mystery. He didn’t have to target that message to just one group, or to offer it for only people who were on their way out, he figured out how to take that message to everyone. He understood that just because a group might be inclined for something, that just limiting your message to that group was a waste of his time. He was the ultimate salesman, but he knew that the key was to make it look like you were walking a fine line and being extremely specific, while at the same time in no way going that far.

So the question comes down, as you explore personalization, or you selling the egress? Or are you the one on your way out that door?


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