While the quest for per­son­al­iza­tion may be newer to some mem­bers of the online mar­ket­ing world, the real­ity is that is a con­cept that is old as sales. Peo­ple have been try­ing to con­vince oth­ers that they alone were get­ting a spe­cial deal or that their mes­sage was meant just for them. One of the great prac­ti­tion­ers of this con­cept was P.T. Bar­num, who famously billed his cir­cus as “we’ve got some­thing for every­one.” On some level every­one under­stands the appeal of being spe­cial and of hav­ing some­one take the time to tell me some­thing that is unique to just me. The great­est sales­peo­ple though under­stood one of the great ironies of per­son­al­iza­tion, which is that gen­eral state­ments, when given in con­text, often are treated as deeply per­sonal and are extremely pow­er­ful. This con­cept is known as the Forer effect, or more directly, the ten­dency of peo­ple to inter­pret state­ments as being accu­rate for them per­son­ally, even when they are not.

The Forer effect gets its name from B.R. Forer and came about from a series of exper­i­ments that he per­formed in 1948. His famous study involved giv­ing a per­son­al­ity test to all of his stu­dents. He told them that they were all receiv­ing unique per­son­al­ity analy­sis, and they were to rate that analy­sis on a scale of 0 to 5. All of the stu­dents actu­ally received the exact same results, using such lines as, “While you have some per­son­al­ity weak­nesses you are gen­er­ally able to com­pen­sate for them.” and “You also pride your­self as an inde­pen­dent thinker; and do not accept oth­ers’ state­ments with­out sat­is­fac­tory proof.”. Despite the exact same state­ments being made, his stu­dents aver­age score for his “analy­sis” was 4.26.

The favorite trick of psy­chics, con­fer­ence speak­ers, and astrol­o­gists, this psy­cho­log­i­cal bias is impor­tant to under­stand, espe­cially when think­ing about the con­cept of per­son­al­iza­tion. Gen­eral state­ments hid­den to look like tar­geted mes­sages have much greater impact than direct state­ments, and are far more likely to increase belief in the speaker. Per­son­al­iza­tion, as it turns out, is about not being per­sonal, or at least not to the Nth degree. Per­son­al­iza­tion is about the match of the gen­eral and the pseudo spe­cific, and it is about tak­ing that mes­sage to the largest group pos­si­ble, not just the ones that directly match the mes­sage. The more we can mea­sure dif­fer­ent types of mes­sages, and the more we can find the largest groups that respond to them, the bet­ter our results, since func­tion­ally the more tar­geted the mes­sage, the less over­all gain we get to improv­ing total site performance.

So you might ask why is this so impor­tant in the quest for per­son­al­iza­tion? This bias tells us that overly think­ing per­son­al­iza­tion and design­ing a large num­ber of spe­cific mes­sages is both a waste of resources, but also far less likely to cre­ate a pos­i­tive out­come. It also tells us that the mes­sage itself does not have to match the rules that dic­tate the out­come; gen­eral state­ments have an impact for a large vari­ety of peo­ple, not just a spe­cific tar­geted group.

As you start think­ing about and tack­ling your per­son­al­iza­tion pro­grams, it is impor­tant to under­stand the nature of why you are doing these actions. Bar­num knew that he was there to sell his cir­cus, and every action he did had only that out­come in mind. He was one of the most famous prac­ti­tion­ers of a sin­gle suc­cess def­i­n­i­tion, and he knew that no mat­ter what he did needed to drive more to spend more on his cir­cus. The same is true of all online efforts. Your goal in the end is to make more money, and the key is not to focus on a spe­cific mes­sage, or to over rely on experts or cor­rel­a­tive infor­ma­tion to tell you when and how to tar­get. The key is to test out all sorts of pos­si­ble con­tent, and to see how you can best present them to peo­ple to allow you the effi­ciency of largest group of peo­ple possible.

This is why a mes­sage about a spe­cific prod­uct may work best for Fire­fox users, why time of day may be the best match for your re-targeting con­tent, and why smaller seg­ments are so inef­fi­cient. It is also one of the main rea­sons why tar­get­ing con­tent with­out the dis­cov­ery process of the value is far more likely to lose you rev­enue than gen­er­ate more. It turns out the more you try to nar­row a mes­sage or assume an out­come, the worse your results will be. Some­what spe­cific mes­sages work for far larger groups than you could ever imag­ine, and you only know the true power when you let go of your own ego and pre­con­ceived notions and explore.

Stop think­ing of per­son­al­iza­tion as try­ing to build a one on one mes­sage with a cus­tomer, that does not work and is extremely inef­fi­cient. Instead explore the var­i­ous ways that you can cre­ate dif­fer­ent con­tent, and then explore who the largest groups are that you can present that to. This means always going through a dis­cov­ery process of fig­ur­ing out what mat­ters, and then fig­ur­ing out for whom. You may want to tar­get to only peo­ple who looked at brand X, or page Y, or who have done a come to your site 3 times with­out pur­chas­ing, but that in no way means that you should limit the mes­sage to just that group. The less con­trol you exert on the specifics of a mes­sage, and the more you are open to new pos­si­bil­i­ties, the more likely you are to find larger and more mean­ing­ful outcomes.

Explore what the value is of dif­fer­ent mes­sages and of tak­ing it to dif­fer­ent groups. You have pow­er­ful tools at your dis­posal to do just that, to dis­cover and take these more gen­eral state­ments to large groups. From sim­ple A/B tests all the way to auto­mated machine learn­ing, the real key to value comes from how you think about the prob­lems, not in your abil­ity to just find a group and tar­get to it. Not only that, but you have the abil­ity to mea­sure the effi­ciency of var­i­ous dis­cov­er­ies and tech­niques against each other. You are not lim­ited to cre­at­ing these sto­ries, or just tar­get­ing to a spe­cific per­sona, you have so much more at your dis­posal if you just allow your­self and oth­ers the flex­i­bil­ity to learn and grow.

P.T. Bar­num is also famous for how he could get peo­ple to pay for any­thing, with the most famous exam­ple being the egress. It wasn’t meant for any­one spe­cific, but he could get just about any­one to fall prey to the mys­tery. He didn’t have to tar­get that mes­sage to just one group, or to offer it for only peo­ple who were on their way out, he fig­ured out how to take that mes­sage to every­one. He under­stood that just because a group might be inclined for some­thing, that just lim­it­ing your mes­sage to that group was a waste of his time. He was the ulti­mate sales­man, but he knew that the key was to make it look like you were walk­ing a fine line and being extremely spe­cific, while at the same time in no way going that far.

So the ques­tion comes down, as you explore per­son­al­iza­tion, or you sell­ing the egress? Or are you the one on your way out that door?