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The amazing truth behind behavioural targeting.

The secret of behavioral targeting

The amazing truth behind behavioural targeting.

Behavioural targeting is a widely used marketing method where online visitor behaviour determines what ads a specific consumer is shown. It is not a coincidence that this is a popular method: behavioural targeting is a powerful tool. However, the underlying psychological principles will amaze you.

Behaviour and personality

Marketing is all about behaviour, or more precisely, influencing behaviour, and buying behaviour in particular. Various techniques are being used to respond to different psychological principles. It is interesting to reflect where exactly behaviour comes from.

Behaviour is closely related to the personality. Philip Kotler describes this as a set of unique psychological characteristics that lead to a reasonably consistent and ongoing pattern of responses to the environment. In other words, personality leads to behaviour. Since personality is an almost permanent feature, you cannot influence the personality in order to influence behaviour in this way.

What behavioural targeting does instead is analyse the online behaviour of consumers in order to get an understanding of their personality. On this basis, ads can be shown that relate specifically to that personality. It is believed that the person will be more likely to purchase, or take action, than someone who has no interest in the subject, and they will have, as much as is possible, a positive feeling seeing the advertisement.

Self-perception theory

What is sometimes forgotten is that it is not only the marketers’ ideas about the consumer that is important. Even more important is the image that the consumer has about themselves and their own personality: their self-image. According to the self-theory of American psychologist Daryl Bem, self-image and the related opinions and attitudes, are strongly influenced by the behaviour we observe in ourselves. ‘I do therefore I am.’

Where the personality can barely be influenced, or not all, the self-image can be influenced more strongly. Moreover, this principle works by using the people and objects by which we surround and identify ourselves. When all of your friends are wearing Nikes, you will soon find this a great brand, ‘because I belong to the Nike lovers’.

Self-image and behavioural targeting

And that is exactly the hidden and surprising power of behavioural targeting. When we find that an ad is aimed specifically at us, this acts as a mirror of our behaviour. From this we draw conclusions about our personality. So our self-image is influenced by the ads that we are subjected to. This can cause us to behave according to the “label” that we were allocated through the ad.

For example, you view an ad targeted at you with a photo of a lovely party where peanuts are eaten. By assuming that your own surfing habits has led to this picture, you are going to think you indeed love socializing. After all, this came out of your own behaviour. So therefore you will fancy some peanuts, right?

Recent research confirmed this effect of behavioural targeting, but also showed some limitations. For example, the ad should somewhat match the already existing characteristics of the consumer. Only then do they relate the newly adduced properties on his self-image. In addition, it should be clear that it is a personal targeted ad, before the mirror effect can occur. But it is sufficient to create the illusion that it is behavioural targeting.

behavioral targeting

Moreover, it can make the difference whether the properties granted by the consumer are being perceived as positive or negative. Self-image actually has several levels. The basis is the actual internal self: Who am I? But also the ideal self-image plays a role: who do I want to be? And finally you have the external self-image: Who am I according to others? Through those two trains of thought, the consumer is more willing to take on characteristics to their self-image when they experience them as positive. The positive qualities are then being confirmed and amplified, like a compliment.


The conscious use of the self-perception theory with behavioural targeting is very difficult. There are actually too many if’s and but’s in the game. However, it is important (and interesting!) to reflect on this effect when designing your targeted campaign. More important than who you are addressing is how to do this, and the way you influence the image of this ‘who’.


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