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Personalizing Messaging to Persuade

Change Persuade to Manipulate.

The number of studies reporting on the efficacy of personalizing grows.


  • A new study reports differences in the persuasive power of organ donation messaging.
  • Changing one's stated intention is one thing; changing actual behavior is another.
  • Personalizing messages with publicly available personal information raises ethical questions.

A new study (Olsacher et al., 2023) has reported on the effectiveness of personalizing messaging to convince potential organ donors through Instagram. This represents yet another extension of the applications of personalization, and more specifically, personalization using personality. 

The underlying idea behind this form of personalisation is to take information known about a person’s personality – specifically, the "Big 5" traits of extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and agreeableness– and then tailoring messaging to individuals based on this. For example, in this new study, the authors reported that individuals who scored highly on extraversion responded more positively to messaging on organ donation that was transformational in nature (p=<0.001), while those high in neuroticism responded more positively to messaging that was informational (p=<0.001). (This technique was infamously made famous through the Cambridge Analytica scandal that purportedly helped to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election in Donald Trump’s favour via targeted Facebook posts.)

This type of personalization campaign gains strength when combined with AI, as there is no need to ask someone to complete a personality survey to ascertain their personality traits, or to have any direct contact with the person or anyone who knows them. Rather, this can be gleaned from information available about them online. For example, access to a mere 10 things that a person has “liked” on Facebook can lead to a prediction about a person’s personality as reliable as a colleague’s guess, while analyzing 300 of their likes can produce a prediction more accurate that their spouse’s. It was this type of data harvesting that is believed to have allowed Cambridge Analytica to tailor political messaging at the level of the individual.

My own research, with Jet Sanders, Ph.D., investigated the potential to personalize messaging. Our research attempted to influence attitudes and behaviors amongst Britains pertaining to refugee. Rather than personalize using the Big 5, we investigated personalizing using moral foundations (caring, fairness, loyalty, purity, and authority), drawn from Moral Foundations Theory (Graham et al., 2013). Morally-sensitive messaging has previously been used to change attitudes towards the environment, and fiscal policy.

Possessed Photography/Unsplash

Source: Possessed Photography/Unsplash

Intention-Behavior Gap

Commendably, the researchers leading this latest study went beyond merely asking participants about the effectiveness of messaging, and added something of a behavioral component in inviting participants to sign up to receive more information on organ donation. Around 15 percent of their sample did so — about 150 people. It might have been interesting to see which personality variables were more highly represented amongst this 15 percent, and which messaging had been most effective. The intention-behavior gap can be notoriously large, and research that truly attempts to create behavioral changesshould include an actual behavioral component, if feasible.

In our study (Mobayed and Sanders, 2022), when asking participants if they would like to see more refugees in the UK, 65.25 percent said yes. When we asked them to sign a petition in support of this goal, an actual behaviour, this number halved to 32.59 percent. Practitioners and policymakers should be well aware of this intention-behavior gap, given how pronounced it can be.

For better or worse (probably both), it would be unwise to think personalization of campaigns is not here to stay. Just how ubiquitous and intrusive, and most importantly, how effective, it will be, remains to be seen. It is tempting to cede the value of convincing people to donate their organs to others; however, the ethics of this is not beyond question.

The combination of people voluntarily making public information about themselves — from the personal and delicate to the seemingly mundane — along with accelerating technological advancements, is an interesting one. Add a deluge of products, ideas, and ideologies, awaiting to be sold, with profits to be made and elections to be won, and the mix becomes all the more potent.

Make Your Selection

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