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Most people have experienced the jarring sensation that a website has no idea who they are or what they are looking for, when it suggests content or offers that are inappropriate or uninteresting. This is essentially because publishers, brands and advertisers have been thinking about personalisation without considering personality, according to Ed Weatherall, client director for VisualDNA. This article is copyright 2015 The Best Customer Guide.

In fact, many companies have continued to use approaches built on postcode data, which may be ideal for routing parcels to the right person but are considerably less useful for understanding how to talk to the different individuals who live at each postcode.

Of course, the scale and speed of the online world make it hard for businesses to understand who they are serving content and ads to. As they look to create rich online experiences that build an emotional connection with each targeted persona - many are still making do with outmoded approaches to segmentation and targeting.

It is not enough to know the postcode of a website visitor - even if one also knows their annual income, marital status, home ownership status and the make of car they drive. Far from being permanent characteristics, all of these things are subject to change. They are also far less reliable predictors of purchasing behaviour than an individual's personality.

An understanding of the target customer is at the heart of every great brand. This understanding must permeate the whole organisation, because it is not just a question of acquiring customers: it is also about nurturing them, servicing them in the best way, and retaining them for life. Without the ability to truly understand customers and prospects online, many brands are struggling to make a successful transition to the digital world.

The Big Five
Drawing on decades of research, psychologists have proposed a number of models for understanding and predicting human behaviour. Particularly where they indicate how different personality types respond to different communication strategies, these models can help marketers to forge lasting emotional connections with people - boosting brand appeal and lifetime value.

One of the leading psychology models is the "Big 5" - also known as OCEAN (from the first letters of the five character traits it employs: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism).

Using survey responses, it possible to assign a percentage score for each of these attributes to any individual, thereby building up a picture of who they are and how they are likely to respond to given stimuli. For marketers, this kind of knowledge is like gold dust, and one of the main drivers for running focus groups.

When speaking to an extravert, it is better to pitch the product or service in a social context, or otherwise play on their need to be loved. When an introvert is the target, there will be more mileage in showing how the product or service fits their independent life. Likewise, a person who scores highly on agreeableness will respond well to positive language about family and home, while a less agreeable - and more sceptical - person will appreciate honesty and realism about what the product or service does and doesn't do.

A race to the top
It's vital to note that the personalisation of marketing and communications has nothing to do with tricking people into making purchases, and everything to do with matching the right product or service to the right person - and making them feel comfortable. When thinking about delivering a great customer experience, too many marketers are projecting their own wishes and prejudices.

Unless businesses take into account the different personalities of their customers, they cannot be sure what the experience of those customers will be. As a simple example, would ten people at the same party all report the same experience?

By focusing marketing and communications on people who are likely to keep buying a given set of products or services, businesses can achieve far greater marketing ROI and drive higher lifetime value. If a campaign or ad reaches out to a customer or prospect in the wrong way - effectively, mis-selling the product - the business may simply be incurring administrative fees when that person returns the product for a full refund. If a business understands each buyer, it will be in a better position to make them feel that they've made the right choice. What's more, if it understands which personality types are more likely to return a product, it can consider not offering free delivery - helping to ensure that these personality types only buy the product if they truly want it.

Failing to understand what makes people comfortable with a particular brand or message tends to leave businesses competing on price - which is ultimately a race to the bottom. The difficulty of achieving this level of understanding online means that many retailers and brands are currently giving up margin in their attempts to attract customers, through discounting, free delivery and free returns.

By investing in personalisation beyond the messaging to encompass the entire customer journey, brands and advertisers can ensure greater customer loyalty, cut costs by reducing churn, and build a community of people who - all in their own unique ways - genuinely like the product, service or brand.

Of course, the catch is in how to actually achieve that personalisation - in particular, online and faced with potentially unknown and anonymous users. Understanding who is visiting a website is hard in a world where people may easily have five or more connected devices, some of them shared with others: personal smartphones and tablets, work smartphones and tablets, home and work laptops, smart TVs, games consoles and more.

"This is where new technology and new data sets come into the picture, enabling brands and advertisers to gain detailed information on the personalities of web users - in real time and at massive scale," concluded Weatherall. "They can use this information to genuinely personalise every aspect of service, so that every interaction is designed to appeal to the specific personality type of each customer and prospect. They can also use personality data to help find new customers just like their best existing ones - for example, by making sure that they bid on the right search keywords."