How to win the U.S. election with social media and psychographics. The case of Cambridge Analytica
Dr.Josef Scheuerlein

Dr.Josef Scheuerlein

How to win the U.S. election with social media and psychographics. The case of Cambridge Analytica

Most of us remember the 2016 US election and the following scandal around a data company called Cambridge Analytica. In 2017 their former CEO claimed that they had a major influence on the outcome and thus the election of Donald Trump. Supposingly, this was accomplished by their effective use of targeted ads on social media – such as Facebook and Twitter.


In this blog we want to have a closer look at the mechanisms behind psychographics and how Cambridge Analytica potentially influenced the voter´s decision. Of course we will look at this in a simplified way. But we also want to raise the question whether it is easy to influence social media users to take actions, such as to vote for a preferred candidate or buy a specific product.


The short answer: YES, IT IS QUITE SIMPLE. To understand the topic a bit better, let’s dive into the field of personality psychology. We all have certain traits that make us unique. These can be for example  thoughts, feelings and behavioral patterns. Traits are indeed distinctive parts of our personality and they are relatively stable across time. For example, all of us know some individuals who are highly extroverted – they are often outgoing, highly social and enjoy spending time in social settings. Others are constantly looking for new experiences, are often very curious and they might love to travel and visit foreign countries. These individuals often show a high degree of the trait openness to experience.


The Big Five personality trait or OCEAN model identifies and summarizes the main factors. The model suggests that there are basically only 5 components which make up our personality. These are quite universal and relatively stable across our lives. The 5 factors are:


  • Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
  • Conscientiousness (organized vs extravagant)
  • Extraversion (outgoing vs. introverted)
  • Agreeableness (friendly vs. challenging)
  • Neuroticism (sensitive vs. resilient)


Naturally, all of these traits are closely linked to how we feel, think and talk. For example, extroverts use more first person plural words, such as “we”, “us” and “our”. Whereas, narcissists tend to use significantly more first-person singular words, e.g. they tend to talk more about “I”, “me” or “mine”. Interestingly, traits also determine how people behave and will most likely behave to certain situations. As a consequence it makes it possible to make certain predictions about the future behavior of individuals.


Now, what did Cambridge Analytica do with all this information?


Well, it seems they illegally gathered the data of millions of users and analyzed their social media usage – this included their posts, contents, pictures, likes and so on. With the gathered data they formed so-called psychographics for each user. Psychographics are basically a summary of all the personality traits, values, opinions, interests and lifestyles.These psychographics were combined with simple demographic information, such as location, age, gender and income. Together these two data points opened the possibility for Cambridge Analytica to track individual voters, identify potential supporters and those who were still biased.


How was Cambridge Analytica now potentially able to influence the voter´s decision, especially those who were not sure yet which candidate to vote for? Well, they just used the gathered data and started to apply microtargeting strategies. This basically means sending individualized ads to a particular subgroup of voters. The messages of these ads were tailored to the psychographic profile of each user. For example, people who tend to be more conservative and traditional might have gotten a message like “The republicans make the borders safer and will secure jobs”.


Whereas, for individuals who are more liberal and open-minded an ad might have popped up like “The republicans support the silicon valley, human rights and free-trade”. As a consequence,  those voters who were still biased might have been indeed influenced by these individual ads. Naturally because they showed the topics which were important for them and which they believed in.


Of course all of these practices were highly illegal and Cambridge Analytica declared bankruptcy in 2018. But, let’s briefly go back to our initial question whether it is possible to persuade social media users to take concrete actions, such as buying a product. Again the answer here is yes. Microtargeting is commonly used on Facebook and Twitter by many of the world´s most successful companies.


So how can you apply microtargeting and psychographics on your social media campaigns? Let’s assume you own a company which sells fancy and exciting energy drinks. You already know a lot about your existing customers – they are young, full of energy, highly social, love to travel and have a fun, careless lifestyle. With this information you can start to form a customer persona – basically you combine all the psychographic and demographic information you already have and form an archetype of your customer. Now you can start to apply your microtargeting strategy – you send out tailored ads to those social groups that match with your customer persona. Voila, you are addressing exactly your target audience and you only send  those messages that your customers want to see and hear. Thus, microtargeting allows you to use your marketing budget in the most effective and efficient way.


So yeah – microtargeting and social media advertisement indeed is very efficient. And it is quite easy to implement. We at Digital Engage hope you found the article helpful. Get in touch to find out more.


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