Is It Written in the Stars? Can Businesses Learn Anything From Astrology?

21/12/2012 15:10 GMT | Updated 19/02/2013 10:12 GMT

Star signs are perhaps the oldest form of audience segmentation, the art of grouping people together based on shared characteristics. The signs of the zodiac can trace their origins back to the Babylonian astrologists from 1200 BC; but surely astrology is all nonsense? No self-respecting person of reasonable intelligence would believe in this, would they? Isn't someone's personality a complex interplay between nature and nurture, rather than the position of the celestial bodies?

Some interesting work by Professor Richard Wiseman, who holds the Professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology, set out to answer this very question. He looked at whether there was any truth in star signs and their predictions regarding personality.

The weird thing (which you probably weren't expecting) is that Professor Richard Wiseman found that your date of birth does in fact significantly impact on your personality. His research showed that 'summer-born' people (April - August in the northern hemisphere) are statistically more likely to be risk takers, view themselves as lucky and basically present themselves as more extrovert. All of these traits are significantly less prevalent in winter babies, according to the statistics.

But is this the stars at work? To validate what was happening here, Wiseman repeated the experiment in the southern hemisphere (to remove the seasons as a variable) and he found the exact opposite when reviewing the results (i.e. those born from April to August, the southern hemisphere winter, were significantly more introverted and those born during the southern hemisphere summer were more extrovert!).

Segmentation is obviously big business and it would be a brave marketer who started targeting 'summer-born' people with risk taking messages. But what Astrologists do well and what is missing from how businesses look at understanding people's behaviour is that they spend time looking at what lies behind the behaviour. It is surprising how little businesses talk about personality traits when looking at target audiences. Marketers rely heavily on old census based ways of defining target audiences. The problem being that this is a blunt tool and socio-demographics can be very misleading; after all, the Queen and Prince Philip could be classed in the lowest socio-economic group - they don't own the house they live in and are state dependent for their income!

The big opportunity for businesses is that the digital world provides an unprecedented view of peoples' behaviour and this means that we no longer need to rely on blunt census based data to create segments, we can look at the individuals and create personality profiles. Behavioural targeting is already very prevalent across the web, the interesting opportunity is to go deeper than this and look at the personality traits that sit behind the behaviour.

Just as criminal psychologists build detailed personality profiles of a suspect based on behaviour, the digital world allows businesses to build personality profiles of consumers based on their behaviour - what they watch online, the things they 'like' on Facebook, brands they buy, stories they share. All of this data helps build a detailed profile of the individual's personality.

From this it would be pretty easy to identify people who are extrovert and prone to risk taking based on their online behaviour. For example these people would presumably be more inclined to have a flutter on the horses or prefer a higher risk pension product, which is very useful knowledge for a company like William Hill or Aviva.

Star signs are obviously complete nonsense, but the ambition to understand what lies behind peoples' behaviour is a healthy aspiration for those of you in business to focus on.