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Advertising responsibly with the Barnum Effect

If you’ve ever taken a Buzzfeed quiz to find out what kind of bread you are or a deep truth about yourself based on your choices in a few desserts, then allow me, a Buzzfeed certified Baguette Bread to say that you have already experienced the Barnum effect.

At some point, you’ve probably been fooled by how a personality quiz or a horoscope can tell you a deep truth about yourself so accurately. What you’re experiencing is really called the Barnum or the Forer Effect.

This is essentially a psychological phenomenon wherein an individual believes that a personality description applies to them specifically, despite the fact that the message was so generic that it applies to almost everyone. This cognitive bias can be a great tool for every marketer if implemented right.

(Source: Unsplash)

WTForer we’re on about:

In 1948, a psychologist, Bertram Forer did a study wherein he conducted personality tests for his students and asked them how well the results matched their self perceptions. The students found that the summaries of their personalities were absolutely on point, they felt they were given a tailor made description of themselves. What they didn’t know was that all of them had the exact same summary of results that described their personalities. They were told generic statements like “You sometimes wonder if you’ve made the right decision or did the right thing”.

Well, duh! Don’t we all?

Horoscopes, psychics and fortune tellers run businesses based on this. If you check out a horoscope reading for your own sun sign from a newspaper, it’ll sound just as hopeful and ring just as true as any other sun sign.

How does Barnum fit into this?

PT Barnum, The Greatest Showman also used this technique where he tried to lure people to his circus by telling them “remarkable truths about themselves”, with generic statements like - sometimes you’re shy but in the company of known faces, you’re quite a party.

(Source: The Human Marvels)

Granted, he was no true detective, but what’s important to note was that he realised most people had the same strengths and weaknesses, they just wanted to feel part of a specific group and feel like they're being addressed personally.

That’s what brought him to say that “there’s a sucker born every minute”. Forer and Barnum find their way to us even today:

If you’ve ever used the Spotify app, the curated playlists and your daily mixes are compiled in a way that makes it seem like it's been specially designed for you based on your past experiences and music preferences. While it feels highly personalized and that Spotify has handpicked those playlists just for you, the truth is that the same songs are automated for different sets of audiences.

(Source: How to geek)

The same logic applies to the Amazon Kindles, the Netflix movies and shows recommendations as well as the personality quizzes.

*relinquishes baguette status*

So are we telling you to manipulate your audience?

Absolutely not! If there’s anything Barnum and Forer taught us, it’s the fact that persona marketing is always the best way forward. When your audience sees a message or a communication line that understands their problems, acknowledges them and tells them that they are not alone, it builds a connection with them.

We see its application in personalisation campaigns where a segmented group of customers are targeted through certain generalities - like loyalty card holders. When you’re a loyalty card holder, you’ll see that personalised promotional banners and discount pop-ups are seemingly personal or meant for you or a selected few, which makes you feel special and exclusive. Personalising messages and promo codes work the same magic. It’s pretty similar to the Coca-Cola “Share a Coke” campaign of 2014 that personalised cans and bottles by replacing the iconic brand name with 250 generic American names.

The more communication that makes them feel like the brand notices them, higher are the chances that the audience will be more receptive to the brand and it’s values. A good marketing and communication strategy is only successful if the message is well crafted and establishes a bond with the audience to be seen as someone who can identify with them and provide solutions to their seemingly unique and uncommon problems.

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