Tackle Inactives by Designing for Their Buyer Personalities

8 min

It’s one of those perpetual questions: Why do so many subscribers go inactive?

We have lots of theories. We talk about frequency and content and optimizing sending times and opting down – everything but what I believe is one of the main causes:

Your email personality doesn’t appeal to them.

It’s like a Tinder date where your match looked so promising online, only to find out when you finally meet that your personalities don’t mesh.

This can happen when your marketing team is made up of people who share one personality type, such as impulse buyers, but your customers are methodical shoppers who need loads of data before they’ll click to buy.

We tend to create emails that appeal to us without checking to make sure they resonate with our customers. But you don’t have to replace your wildly creative designers and copywriters with I-dotters, T-crossers, bullet-pointers and fine-print experts.

Instead, find out how your customers read, shop and buy. Then, design emails that incorporate elements to appeal to each of four basic buyer personalities.

If your messages don’t motivate your customers to act, they’ll ignore your emails. Perhaps not enough to unsubscribe; they just won’t jump on your emails when your brand or subject line pops into the inbox.

In other words, they’re just not that into you.

But they used to be – hence, why they’re on your list. The solution? Design your emails to appeal to all four buyer personalities.

The four distinct types of buyers

Greek classicism and modern marketing research combine to help us understand these four basic types:

1. Hippocrates, the Greek physician, defined basic human personalities:

  • Choleric
  • Sanguine
  • Melancholic
  • Phlegmatic

2. Marketing experts Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg gave us these modern versions:

  • Competitive
  • Spontaneous
  • Methodical
  • Humanistic

3. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen identified four types of web searchers that mesh with these buyer personalities:

  • Search Dominant
  • Navigation Dominant
  • Tool Dominant
  • Successful

Blending this research together gives us these four shopper personalities:

1. Competitive/Choleric/Search Dominant

Competitive buyers want to move fast. Give them the pertinent details. Let them click and convert effortlessly, and then get out of their way. They want products and services that will make them more effective.  Making fast, smart decisions is their competitive advantage.

2. Spontaneous/Sanguine/Tool Dominant

These are your impulse buyers. If they like it, they’ll buy it without shopping around or scrutinizing the fine print. They love the emotional high that comes from pouncing on the perfect whatever, but they also expect superior customer service after the sale so you don’t kill their shopping high.

3. Methodical/Melancholic/Navigation Dominant

Methodical buyers are your fine-print readers and the ultimate comparison shoppers. They will read every bit of technical information to assure themselves that they’re making the right choice and won’t move to convert until they have soaked up all the relevant information in your email.

4. Humanistic/Phlegmatic/Successful

Humanistic buyers don’t just buy the product; they want to know about the company they’re buying from. They seek out social proof to approve their actions. What’s your mission? Are you trustworthy? Humanistic shoppers are hard to lock down. They likely won’t act on your emails right away. Once you earn their trust, however, they are loyal repeat shoppers.

How the four personalities shop and research

This chart shows how these four personalities line up with buying styles as well as how they use the web and email. It also introduces the “fold” concept; that is, the best place in the message to put your offer.

The challenge: designing for multiple customer personalities

As I said before, incorporating elements that would appeal to each of the four buyer personalities could help you reduce inactivity. It’s not that simple, of course, but it can be done without completely overhauling your email templates.

The issue, of course, is that your customers and subscribers aren’t all cut from the same bolt of personality cloth. They might also show a different personality with different products or services, or buying for business versus buying for personal reasons.

I’m more Spontaneous when shopping for personal items, yet Competitive when I’m in my business role. Emails from retailers and travel brands that appeal most to me have simple, punchy calls to action, luscious images and a clear direction that tells me what I need to do next.

I don’t need details. I don’t want highlights. Just tell me what I need to do. Emails like the one below make me say, “I want that! How do I get it?”

buyer personalities

A Methodical shopper, on the other hand, wants to see the fine print: exclusions, blackout dates and other restrictions.

Decode your buyers’ personalities

  1. Assess your email personality. Ask people who aren’t as close to them as you and your team are, and figure out which of the four personalities your email reflects. Is it yours, your marketing team’s, your designers? Do outsiders like IT, your executives, even legal influence your creative content?
  1. Use email, search and web clues to determine your buyer personalities. These questions can point you in the right direction:
  • Do your customers usually click right to the landing page and convert?
  • Do they start at the landing page, click on detail tabs or look for buyer FAQs?
  • Do they visit the landing page again and again?
  • Do they click the “buy now” button but then let the product sit in the shopping cart for a few days before converting?

If you don’t get definitive answers there, your customer base probably is made up of all four personalities, which is standard and to be expected. You might be tempted to try segmenting customers based on your assumptions about which kind of buyer they are and targeting messages to each group, but that can get you into trouble if you guess wrong.

So, how do you deal with this?

Design for all four personalities

Set up your email template to account for all four buyer personalities in your layout and copy. Add elements that would resonate with each personality throughout your email, using copy, images, positioning and navigation that could prompt each type to click through.

Here’s how it might play out:

  • Spontaneous shoppers might need just a gorgeous image, a paragraph of WIIFM (“what’s in it for me?”) copy and a clear and persuasive call to action to leap into action.
  • Competitive shoppers also want WIIFM copy, a clear benefit statement and a competitor comparison.

These two shoppers are the least likely to scroll through your email looking for the fine print. Hook them above the fold.

  • Humanistic shoppers look for social proof (via user content, testimonials, ratings etc.) that this is a great deal coming from a company they would like.
  • Methodical shoppers want all the facts about the product or service – materials, construction, warranty, guarantee, etc. The more bullet points, the better!

Testing and automation for multiple-personality email

In an ideal world, you have data that accurately classifies your shoppers into one of the buyer categories and use a content management system that interprets that data to serve up the right dynamic content automatically.

However, that’s rarely the case; hence, why we design for all four personalities. Whilst broadcast emails are a typical starting point, your automated programs, such as cart or browse reminders and win-back/reactivation programs, can also provide long-term testing grounds that give you a baseline for more concrete results. Also, as your automated programs are ongoing valuable programs that deliver high ROI, you don’t want to leave them out of your redesign!

Testing with automation programs: A win-back or reactivation program is a good place to start testing your hypothesis about shopper personalities. Having regular activity from only a subset of your customer base could potentially be a symptom of personality disorder in your messages.

Because you’re continually sending win-back/reactivation campaign emails, they represent a fantastic opportunity, not just to find out what work best for that program to re-engage your customers, but also which personality-keyed elements (images, language, navigation, etc.) work best with your audience. It’s a win/win solution.

Three steps to set up a testing program

  1. Create a test message with layout and copy for all four buyer personalities.
  2. Write four different subject lines, one for each personality.
  3. Analyze to see how your results vary.

Different copy treatments: Some personalities mesh for information needs. Emotional, evocative copy is more likely to spur Spontaneous and Humanistic shoppers, while Competitive and Methodical shoppers want the facts, not the frills.

Borrow copy from your landing, FAQ or customer service pages, and mine your social media copy for social proof. Then, arrange your message elements to support each personality’s differing needs and querying styles in a way that would prompt more shoppers to click.

Once you have your baseline for results, you can start applying what you’ve learning all the way through your email programs.

Add buyer personality to all email touch points 

Once you feel confident that your changes are building engagement and countering inactivity, you can begin to incorporate them throughout your email program:

1. Match the email to the landing page! Even as you add elements to appeal to each buyer personality, remember that your email’s main goal is to move shoppers to your landing page on your website.

That’s where the conversion happens. Use the page to shower your Methodicals and Humanistics with the information they crave. But, also provide the “buy now” link that will speed your Spontaneous and Competitive shoppers to purchase.

2. Add to all automated messaging: Although these are primarily service-based messages, they should also appeal to the four buyer personalities: benefits and competitive offerings at the top of the email for your Spontaneous and Competitive shoppers; testimonials for your Humanistics; details in bullet points for your Methodicals.


We usually blame frequency and topic relevance for subscriber or customer inactivity, but a third source might also be in play here: your email personalities don’t mesh.

You can resolve this disconnect by adding elements to your email messages that resonate with different personalities: Spontaneous, Competitive, Humanistic and Methodical.

This includes automated messages such as confirmations and reminders. Automated messaging is an excellent testing ground because these programs run constantly in the background and generate plenty of data to test your hypothesis that tailoring email content to buyer personality will increase engagement and reduce inactivity.