The Growing Threat of Psychographic Profiling & Big Data

My research for the Master of Science in Communication at the Purdue has consisted mostly of communication strategies directed at Millennials. Whether it be Volkswagen, Marriott International or Paramount Pictures this demographic accounts for the bulk of social media marketing campaigns. It makes sense right? Young people make up the majority of social media users and organizations are carefully tracking their tech-savvy behavior through interactive content online.

Not only do multi-national corporations want to know our ages, they also want to know our psychological makeup. This kind of data can indicate everything from our favorite restaurants to our religious philosophies or lack thereof. Kind of a scary thought isn’t it? The bottom line is the better an organization knows and understands its customers, the easier it is to create messages that will successfully sell them products and services.

With that being said, I must respectfully disagree with digital metrics extraordinaire  Avinash Kaushik who stated as recently as 2014 that demographic and psychographic information is the least useful data available to online businesses. Yes, Competitive Intelligence Analysis (CIA) is a critical component of a winning digital marketing plan and Echosystem results matter, but if you ask me, demographic and psychographic data are the most valuable of all analytical metrics. We need look no further than the results of the 2016 US presidential election for evidence of the power wielded by psychoanalytic information.

It is hard to dispute the success of the communication strategy that won Donald Trump the election. Many Washington insiders believe the secret of Trump’s successful presidential bid lies with a relatively unknown startup called Cambridge Analytica. This little “big data” company was hired by the Trump campaign to measure the psychographics of the American electorate. The rest is history. It might be a bit of an exaggeration, but Cambridge CEO Alexander Nix boasts ”we were able to form a model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America” (Grassegger & Krogerus 2017). Over the top? The company’s research is said to be based on the well-established psychological profiling theory behind the “Big Five” or “OCEAN” which stands for the personality traits of “openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism” (Grassegger & Krogerus 2017).

It has been a well-known fact among psychologists for quite some time that OCEAN data can determine an individual’s personality with a high amount of accuracy. While this information in and of itself has been of great use for decades, computer technology has revolutionized its collection and impact. The fact is, most of us are now part of a massive survey sampling on our smartphones that just keeps on giving.

Psychologist and Stanford professor, Michal Kosinski, who developed the original Facebook profiling technique, believes smartphones provide “a vast psychological questionnaire that we are constantly filling out, both consciously and unconsciously” (Grassegger & Krogerus 2017). Who can disagree? Basically, smartphone intel adds up to a marketing research nirvana that can basically predict everything from where we are located to our chosen political ideology. If that doesn’t freak you out a little bit, it should.

It’s exactly this kind of intelligence that won a glitzy real estate developer with zero political experience the most powerful office in the world. Kaushik is correct when he asserted that it is important to get a “head-to-head comparison of how you are doing vs. your competitor at a macro level on specific social channels” (Kaushik 2015). Yet knowing what Hillary Clinton’s communications team was up to on social media could not offer what “the OCEAN Model and Big data analysis” did for the GOP (Grassegger & Krogerus 2017).

Cambridge Analytica claims every Trump message in the 2016 campaign was driven by psychometrics data. The success of psychographic data and ad targeting on social media has forever changed America’s presidential elections. Cyber psychoanalytic intelligence gathering points to an Orwellian future. If you don’t believe me, you should look into the Chinese government’s mobile app for everything from ordering takeout to personal banking. Do you hear the “fire bell in the night” (Jefferson, 1820)? It’s probably time we all take a hard look at the ethics of big data and our privacy rights.

Sources

Kaushik, A. (2015). Crushing It With Competitive Intelligence Analysis: Best Metrics, Reports. Occam’s Razor.

 

Grassegger H. & Krogerus M. (2017) The Data That Turned The World Upside Down. Motherboard Retrieved at https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/mg9vvn/how-our-likes-helped-trump-win

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