He Has a Great Personality: Using Digital Footprints to Segment Markets

5-factor personality model
personality word cloud
Courtesy of Lambiotte and Kosinski and the Proceedings of the IEEE.

Isn’t that the line when someone tries to fix you up with a blind date — he or she has a great personality? It’s usually a code word for ugly.

Unlike in dating, in the case of target marketing, personality may be your golden ticket.

A brief history of segmentation

Segmentation began in the 1950s and was dominated by demographic variables like age, income, and gender, not because these were the defining characteristics of consumers, but because that’s what information was available. Prior to the 1950s, in what marketers call the production era, most energies were focused on producing products and satisfying consumer wants and needs was inconsequential. But, with increased competition and more product differentiation, marketers like Smith argued for consumer segmentation as a tool for improved market performance. He argued:

Segments should be based on consumer/user wants and a company should be better able to serve these needs when it has defined some segments within a larger market.

By 1974, a formal definition of segmentation comes from a seminal paper published by Wind and Cardoza, which identifies market segments as:

A group of present and potential customers with some common characteristic (s) which is relevant in explaining (and predicting) their response to a supplier’s marketing stimuli.

As better sources of information arose, especially with modern digital marketing, more information is available about consumer personality, including lifestyles, media usage, attitudes, and other non-demographic characteristics. Segmentation moved from identifying target markets based on demographic variables to rich market persona, built on deep personality data.

Personality and marketing

First, let’s get an understanding of what we mean by personality. According to Boundless personality is:

Personality is the combination of behaviors, emotions, and motivations that comprise an individual human being. Over time, these patterns strongly influence personal expectations, self-perceptions, values, and attitudes.

But, the use of personality in marketing, especially for segmentation, is relatively recent. For much of its short history (the discipline of marketing is only a little over 80 years old), marketing was heavily influenced by economics, such that economic variables like pricing dominated discussions of positioning products for various market segments. It’s only within the last 10 years or so that marketers began trying to understand personality and how personality factors impacted consumer behavior.

Likely the first use of personality in marketing was not for understanding consumers, but for imbuing personality into products.  Brand personality encouraged consumers to buy certain products whose personalities they liked — a practice that remains very effective today.

Increasingly, marketers use consumer personalities to segment consumer markets and create options for positioning brands to attract consumers based on personality. And, digital marketing offers rich data for understanding consumer personality, segmenting consumer markets based on personality, and helping brands reach consumers who share certain personalities.

Big data: using consumers’ digital footprints

Understanding consumer personality is challenging because, short of doing expensive market research, what consumers think and feel, how they live their lives, and what things they value is inaccessible. With the advent of social networks and mobile devices that create a digital footprint of individual consumers, such information is readily available.

In a special issue of the Proceedings of the IEEE published in December, researchers from Namur University in Belgium and Stanford in the US discussed the use of consumers’ digital footprints to infer personality, which is useful for marketing segmentation and selective reach of messages to a particular segment based on personality as well as personality-driven search engines and recommender systems (like Netflix’s and Amazon’s related product recommendations).

When we talk about personality, we’re talking about fairly stable traits. People differ across 5 broad personality styles: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Facebook’s myPersonality project

In 2007, researchers created the myPersonality project; offering Facebook users access to psychological tests resulting in personality data from over 6 million users (users controlled whether their personality results became public in the anonymous database, and access to that database is highly restricted to researchers). Below, you can see what an individual’s personality profile looks like.

5-factor personality model
Courtesy of Lambiotte and Kosinski and the Proceedings of the IEEE.

Facebook data shows not only messages (which are mined for text data regarding values, attitudes, and lifestyle), but relationships with other users and likes (brand page and post likes). Mining this data shows personality differences across geographic regions like the one below showing neuroticism (upper map) and extroversion (lower map) across the US.

personality differences across the US
Courtesy of Lambiotte and Kosinski and Proceedings of the IEEE.

This pattern of Facebook likes helps predict demographic variables, as well as psychological ones such as:

  • religious views
  • political leanings
  • sexual orientation
  • intelligence

Mobile data

Mobile devices send information about geolocation, colocation with others, physical states (such as running, walking, and not moving), and call data records, as well as emotional feelings using apps such as EmotionSense.

Using digital footprints

We’ve just scratched the surface of using digital footprints, but the marketing implications are enormous.


Knowing more about customers and their personalities opens up vast possibilities for new product development (NPD). Sure, text analysis provides huge benefits when developing new products, but adding the personality component helps greatly.

For instance, let’s say your existing customers are extroverts. You could research the digital footprints of other extroverts to understand their wants and needs to develop new products for that segment. Since you’re already successful with extroverts, going after this market rather than another target market usually results in higher market performance.


We know personality is a huge determinant of how consumers respond to market messages. For instance, someone who’s neurotic will respond better to messages about safety, while an extrovert will respond better to messages about connectivity.

Courtesy of Lambiotte and Kosinski and the Proceedings of the IEEE
Courtesy of Lambiotte and Kosinski and the Proceedings of the IEEE

Extraverts also have different social network characteristics from introverts. Notice in the graphic, who extroverts (on the right) have both larger and more diverse social networks, while introverts (on the left) have dense relationships within concentrated groups. Thus, messaging travels differently between introverts and extroverts. Likely, introverts are more influential because of their deep relationships (strong ties) within small groups, while extroverts generate a wider awareness of the message because of their diverse relationships across many groups (weak ties) — based on Granovetter’s notion of strong versus weak ties.

Obviously, extroverts have some strong ties, as well, but their major benefit is in their ability to spread your message.

Facebook already allows message targeting based on some personality characteristics coming from purchased databases — such as Personicx. Data allow targeting based on personality within a broad range of characteristics such as family composition, dwelling location (ie. urban versus rural), their media watching habits, hobbies, what they like to eat and drink, preferred sports and teams, technology use, and many others. You can also target based on what they buy, which infers not only personality but how personality acts on their behavior. I commonly advise clients to use Facebook sponsored posts because of these personality targeting options and the relatively low cost of reaching a particular target audience.

A better understanding of consumer behavior

New insights come from using digital footprints data — a type of data whose volume and richness never existed before. For instance, the knowledge that introversion and neuroticism vary in some systematic way across geographic regions is not only an interesting insight from digital footprints but has strategic implications. For instance, marketers might use geographic shortcuts to selectively target individuals with certain personality traits.

Likely new insights will come from further investigations of personality data from digital footprints.

The caveat to using digital footprints

Of course, using digital footprints has its drawbacks. The most serious drawback of using digital footprints is the privacy issue and issues of who controls your digital data. For this reason, many consumers opt-out of sharing private data and avoid platforms that don’t conform with their desires for privacy, such as Gmail and Facebook.

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