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You won't believe what advertisers can tell about you from one click!

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Companies need just one Facebook like to target you as a potential customer, according to new research by researchers in Cambridge.

A new research paper by scientists from Columbia University, Stanford and UPenn in the US, and the Judge Business School, has found that our digital footprint can reveal a lot more information than you might think.

The paper reveals that every time we go online - our browsing habits are recorded - from the websites we visit to the videos we watch. This helps create a special profile known as a digital footprint. It helps form a picture of what we are like as individuals.

Dr Sandra Matz, a former PhD student at Cambridge now based at Columbia, and her co-authors, including Dr David Stillwell from the Cambridge Psychometrics Centre, have found that these profiles can be used to tailor advertising to increase the likelihood that we'll engage with a firm's product or service.

Your online habits can reveal a lot about you Credit: PA Images

While targeting advertising may not be new, the authors say the ability to identify and target audiences based on psychological traits that reflect people’s preferences and needs at a much deeper and instinctual level, is.

"Prior targeting might have focused on demographic or behavioural attributes such as ‘women ages 18-45’ who searched for the term ‘Soccer World Cup on Google between 2-4pm’. Psychological targeting, however, can focus on a person’s fundamental character traits and psychological needs, which are known to explain and predict preferences in a broad variety of contexts."

– Dr Sandra Matz, Columbia University

The researchers carried out three studies, targeting more than 3.5 million Facebook users, they found:

  • While Facebook advertising doesn't allow firms to directly target users based on their psychological traits, it does so indirectly by offering the possibility to target based on Facebook ‘Likes'.
  • Features of Facebook's advertising platform allows marketers to target ads at consumer segments of different psychological profiles. For example, liking ‘Socialising’ on Facebook could be linked to extroversion.
  • The researchers sent out Facebook ads that either aligned with or ran counter to the users’ psychological profiles - they found matching the content of persuasive messages to individuals’ psychological characteristics resulted in up to 40% more clicks and up to 50% more purchases.

The study found there were pros and cons to the ability to influence behaviour of large groups of people by tailoring messages to their psychological needs.

On the plus side the scientists said the ads could be used to help people make better decisions, and lead healthier and happier lives or save money. Looking at the negative side, they found psychological targeting could be used to exploit weaknesses in people’s character and persuade them to take action against their best interest. For example, online casinos could target ads at individuals who have psychological traits associated with pathological gambling.

The researchers hope the study will start a larger debate about the value of building psychologial profiles online.