Have you ever checked your horoscope in the newspaper and thought it was surprisingly accurate? Or maybe you once went for a Tarot card reading and found the interpretation really relevant? This is the Barnum Effect at work.

The Barnum Effect, also called the Forer Effect, can be described as the psychological phenomenon, “that occurs when individuals believe that personality descriptions apply specifically to them (more so than to other people), despite the fact that the description is actually filled with information that applies to everyone.” [Vohs, Kathleen D. “Barnum Effect,” Encyclopædia Britannica 2016].

Rooted in people’s susceptibility to flattery and tendency to believe seemingly authoritative sources, the Barnum Effect means that, if delivered the right way, people will accept generalities as being directly relevant to them.

Origins of the Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect got its name from the 19th century American showman Phineas Taylor Barnum, who many think coined the phrase, ‘a sucker is born every minute.’ However, it was perhaps the work of psychology professor Bertram Forer in the late 1940s that best illustrates the phenomenon.

Interested in studying personality, Professor Forer decided to conduct a personality test (in the form of a questionnaire) on his class of Introduction to Psychology students. The survey was written in such a way as to make the students believe that each of their unique set of answers would be analyzed and used to give them an individual personality assessment. However, Professor Forer instead gave each student an identical assessment – a paragraph full of generalities that could be true for nearly anyone, such as, ‘You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself.’ [Wiseman, Richard, Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives (London: Macmillan, 2007), chap. 1, Google books]

Surprisingly, on a scale of 1 to 5, 87% of students rated their personality assessment as being very accurate – giving it a score of 4 or 5. Various explanations exist for why the students were so willing to accept the bogus assessment, including human gullibility regarding positive feedback and perceived authority figures.

The Barnum Effect Applied to Conversion Optimization

Though most applicable for activities like fortune-telling or horoscopes, elements of the Barnum Effect can be useful in online CRO strategies. Personalization campaigns, for example, can use ‘generalities’ (messaging to audience segments) to make individual customers feel like they’re being interacted with on a one-to-one basis. Think about product recommendations made ‘just for you,’ or personalization campaigns that rely on user behavioral triggers or in-depth demographic data.

At AB Tasty, we ran a campaign with our client Sephora that involved displaying a promotional banner personalized for loyalty card holders. Loyalty card programs already play on the attraction of exclusivity, and though the personalized banner was shown to all loyalty card holders, people have a tendency to feel these kinds of messages are being directed specifically to them. Incidentally, this banner lead to a 16% increase in transactions on Sephora’s site.

Use of the Barnum effect to increase conversions
AB Tasty client Sephora displayed a personalized discount banner just to loyalty card holders,
exploiting the Barnum Effect.

In a similar vein, you can also personalize promotional banners, pop-ins, or any other part of your site with personalized promo codes or messages that, although generic in nature, nonetheless make consumers feel as if they’re being considered as individuals.

Similarly, another AB Tasty client, fashion retailer Karen Millen, set up a personalization campaign (seen below) to promote discounted items only to customers who had a history of buying items on sale.

Barnum effect for ecommerce website

Lastly, using a client’s first name, birth date, or other personal information is another way of using generic information in the spirit of the Barnum Effect, to make browsers feel interacted with on a one-to-one level.

How to use the Barnum effect for better conversions
Personalized emailings are a particularly effective way of harnessing the Barnum Effect to make clients feel special.