Social Media – It’s Getting Personal

What is persuasion profiling?

Persuasion profiling; does that sound like something nasty? Read on and judge for yourself at the end of this article.

Rather than starting off with a geeky definition of persuasion profiling, we can start off by considering something that online users are already being subjected to: taste profiling. You might have noticed that seems to intelligently recommend books about your favourite subjects, or that Google customizes your news items. However that is not the only thing being custom-fitted to you, the ads displayed on websites sometimes are also targeted to your particular tastes. What such websites have done is to build a profile of what you like, based on your product and content consumption trends. They then use this profile to serve you more relevant offers. Taste profiling has been generally accepted and we might also think of it as a useful thing, barring maybe the ads, which are a bit more tempting than just generic advertisements. However, this is only the beginning, and we need to ask ourselves whether we are ready for the next generation of profiling systems: Persuasion profiling.

This persuasion profiling technique (a research product of two doctoral students at Stanford University), not only promises to deduce what kind of content you are most likely to be receptive of, but indeed also figure out how you actually think and respond to advertising stimuli. Online retailers are at the brink of making a jump from just showing users a personalized list of recommended products to actually personalizing the way they pitch the products on an individual basis.

Maurits Kaptein and Dean Eckles, the researchers working on this new psycho-technological innovation, experimented by setting up an experimental bookstore and asked people to browse through and mark items for purchasing just as they would do on a real site like What the users didn’t know was that a persuasion profiling system was hard at work behind the scenes, generating their individual profiles. At the end of this experiment Kaptein and Eckles reported that they were able to increase sales by 30 to 40 percent. This was done by the software analyzing how each user responded to different advertising stimuli, deciding which factor would most likely generate a purchase by each user and then showing the user tailored offers and recommendations.

Sounds complicated? Let’s go through a simplified example to see how this can work. Let’s say you are interested in IT and you are looking for your next read on an online bookshop. Based on your previous actions at the store the seller knows that you are most influenced by an appeal to authority and social proof. On the other hand it also knows that you tend to be turned off by discounted products and see this as a sign of a sub-par product. The website will then automatically generate a recommended book and might tell you that Dr XYZ, an industry expert, likes this book, and it is one of the IT bestsellers at the store. This immediately raises the profile of the book in your own mind; you click through, read the description of the book and buy it. We can therefore observe that during this process you were unknowingly being nudged towards a particular purchase by triggering your known susceptibility to factors you value, and that (possibly subconsciously) make you buy one product and not another.

Here are just some of the triggers that can be employed in trying to make us succumb into making a purchase:

  • Discounts
  • Appeal to Authority
  • Limited Time
  • Instant Gratification
  • Social Proof
  • Fear Appeal
  • Cross-Selling

There are even more triggers that can be observed in people, some of us might be more interested in what their friends like or what they are buying (a trigger already in use on Facebook), while others can’t resist a significant discount on a product.

Who will generate our persuasion profiles?

The theory behind all this is quite easy to understand. However an important question we may ask is who will be responsible for generating the vast amount of data needed and compiling it into your personal profile. Clearly the ideal company would have a website where the biggest number of people can be profiled while making purchases. Enter an online retailer like It is estimated that a third of the people who shop online shop at Amazon, making it perfectly positioned to generate the data needed to build such user profiles.

A significant finding in the research conducted by Kaptein and Eckles is that people respond to the same persuasion technique across multiple domains. Thus, once the profiles have been built, say by Amazon, they can possibly be sold to other online retailers, making this a highly lucrative additional income stream and providing exceptional returns for the selling company.

If the persuasion profiles are eventually sold, the technique might also be put in use for offline marketing methods. Consider for example the value such a profile would bring in to a political party during the campaigning phase. Armed with such personal information, the party may convince you to give it your vote by sending you personalized leaflets stressing on the stimuli that they know you are receptive to.


Will online retailers be able to learn which types of persuasion are most effective for their individual customers? I believe that we will eventually see this implemented by big retailers in the next few years, although selling of these profiles will very probably raise concerns and encounter data protection issues. In any case, fast forward some time into the near future and we might as well say to ourselves to not only think twice, but think thrice, before making a decision to buy something online.

 This article was published in July 2011 on the Technology Sunday, a technology supplement of the Times of Malta on Sunday.


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