Why Brands Need to Understand Personalities in Order to Leverage AI’s Potential

A scientist riffs on missed marketing opportunities

Companies have opportunities by going beyond demographics.
Getty Images

Today, the attention of 80 million or so millennials are intensely desired by marketers. Ask pretty much any one of them about the latest creative ad that cost millions to disseminate and you are met with a nearly self-righteous shrug. Millennials don’t just mute ads on TV, they proactively create moats of ad-blockers and over-the-top services and premium commercial-free streams just to specifically avoid unwelcomed influence.

Accordingly, marketers must try increasingly sophisticated techniques to get their ads in front of the desired demographic. Millennials, however, aren’t looking for an “ad-free life;” they’re simply looking for conversation. A give-and-take based on shared interests and values, rooted in mutual understanding and respect. The trouble is it’s hard for scientists—much less marketers—to understand what makes a person … well, a personality.  

In only the last 30 years have psychologists and academics established psychometric scales, or the measurement of specific traits to build a putative understanding of personalities. Originally called the Five-Factor Model, or OCEAN, the approach reflects the confluence of theoretical and empirical models. The dimensions are Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. An addition and slight reconfiguration has given us the HEXACO. The addition is Honesty and Neuroticism was changed to Emotionality.

Here’s a table that shows how psychologists break the subjects down.

The table above gives you a bit of insight into the depth and comprehensiveness of HEXACO. The good news is that it’s rock solid. Every culture, every geographic region shows these same six dimensions. If I may, one of the most interesting uses of personality indexing has been in the matching system I co-developed for eHarmony when our romantic pairing algorithm resulted in significantly lower divorce rate than seen in “the wild.”

That said, the obvious question remains: What is the personality’s relevance to marketers? If you used eHarmony, particularly back in the early days, you know that there was a long and tedious questionnaire that was used to assess your traits. While we don’t expect millennials to do the same, personality is primarily expressed in speech. And boy are these millennials talking—talking across social media, that is.

There is nothing in the human repertoire that allows us to express ourselves with more individuality than language. It only takes a few minutes on the internet to see all the instances where we use language for that precise purpose. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, even image based sites like Instagram are wrapped in text. Is it possible to know the personal traits of someone who is engaged on these platforms just by analyzing their social speech?

Yes, but to properly apply psychometrics to marketing, you need to analyze a lot of data, and very quickly. So much so, the required scale and speed seemed unapproachable. Fortunately, artificial intelligence and other learning technologies have become smarter, their context recognition more nuanced and speech recognition much sharper.

The central purpose of these AI platforms, and certainly ours, is to help brands have personalized conversations. With systems now humming, it’s not just long-term personalities we are able to quantify, but also immediate emotions like anger, fear, happiness and surprise. Under these conditions it is possible to engage with the unique personality patterns and immediate feelings of individuals.

For example, if you are selling to an “introvert,” there are few times when they will naturally want to buy something, even when they need it. But when they are momentarily very happy, they are much more likely to purchase. Similarly, a “curious” consumer will be drawn to product details in a new gadget and “creative” types are excited by personalization options and limited editions. By recognizing what motivates specific cohorts, marketers could be much smarter on how they approach consumers.

In summary, artificial intelligence has a long way to go, but the framework is there. Smart brands are going to analyze social speech to get to know their consumers. Armed with that insight, they could tailor campaigns that speak directly to those consumers in ways that demand a response. And that’s when things get really tricky, knowing what to do with that amount of potent data may be the most difficult part of finally understanding your audience. But then again it wasn’t long ago when I was convinced that finding enough conversation was going to be the hard part.