Why the 4 Buyer Modalities Are Totally Meaningless

Buyer Modalities

As optimizers and business owners, you’re striving to better understand your audience. Who visits your site? What are they looking for? What will make them convert to paying customers?

To help answer these questions, buyer modalities were created to help categorize visitors and their purchase behavior. The only problem?

Buyer modalities are meaningless and personality models as a whole are extremely difficult to apply to online marketing and optimization.

What Are the 4 Buyer Modalities?

The concept of buyer modalities was first introduced by Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg in Waiting for Your Cat to Bark. Since then, it’s become quite popular…

Buyer Modalities Search Results

The Eisenbergs believe that every buyer can be categorized into one of the following four types…

  1. Competitive Buyers – “What’s the bottom line?”
  2. Spontaneous Buyers – “Why should I choose you now?”
  3. Methodical Buyers – “How does your product work?”
  4. Humanistic Buyers – “Who has already used your solution to solve my problem?”

According to the Eisenbergs, 5-10% of the population falls within the Competitive modality, 45% within the Methodical modality, 10-15% within the Humanistic modality, and 25-35% within the Spontaneous modality.

4 Buyer Modalities
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These modalities are, of course, based on the the four temperaments, defined by Keirsey

  1. Rationals (Competitive) – “Speak mostly of what new problems intrigue them and what new solutions they envision, and always pragmatic, they act as efficiently as possible to achieve their objectives, ignoring arbitrary rules and conventions if need be.”
  2. Artisans (Spontaneous) – “Speak mostly about what they see right in front of them, about what they can get their hands on, and they will do whatever works, whatever gives them a quick, effective payoff, even if they have to bend the rules.”
  3. Guardians (Methodical) – “Speak mostly of their duties and responsibilities, of what they can keep an eye on and take good care of, and they’re careful to obey the laws, follow the rules, and respect the rights of others.”
  4. Idealists (Humanistic) – “Speak mostly of what they hope for and imagine might be possible for people, and they want to act in good conscience, always trying to reach their goals without compromising their personal code of ethics.”
Keirsey's 4 Temperaments
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The four temperaments go all the way back to Hippocrates and Plato, who proposed that everyone falls within four categories: iconic (Artisans), pistic (Guardians), noetic (Idealists), dianoetic (Rational).

According to Keirsey, there are four rings that make up a personality: concrete vs. abstract, cooperative vs. utilitarian, informative vs. directive, and expressive vs. attentive.

Concrete vs. Abstract

Guardians and Artisans are concrete and observant while Idealists and Rationals are abstract and introspective. That means Guardians and Artisans are more grounded, more down to earth… they tend to focus on the practical. Idealists and Rationals, on the other hand, tend to have their heads in the clouds… they’re more theoretical.

Cooperative vs. Utilitarian

Rationals and Artisans are more utilitarian in nature, meaning they pay the most attention to their own thoughts and are primarily concerned with what works. Guardians and Idealists are cooperative, meaning they pay attention to other opinions and value doing the right thing.

Informative vs. Directive

Each temperament has a role: informative or directive. There are those who communicate by informing others (informative) and those who communicate by directing others (directive).

So, each of the four temperaments is broken up into two. For example, there are informative Guardians (Conservators) and directive Guardians (Administrators). The result? Eight possible categories…

  1. Operators (directive Artisans)
  2. Administrators (directive Guardians)
  3. Mentors (directive Idealists)
  4. Coordinators (directive Rationals)
  5. Entertainers (informative Artisans)
  6. Conservators (informative Guardians)
  7. Advocates (informative Idealists)
  8. Engineers (informative Rationals)

Expressive vs. Attentive

Lastly, you have those who prefer overt action (expressive) and those who prefer covert action (attentive). Those who are expressive are often described as active and chatty while those who are attentive are often described as wary and watchful.

Each of the eight categories above can be divided by expressive and attentive, leaving us with sixteen possibilities:

  1. Promoters (expressive Operators)
  2. Performers (expressive Entertainers)
  3. Supervisors (expressive Administrators)
  4. Providers (expressive Conservators)
  5. Teachers (expressive Mentors)
  6. Champions (expressive Advocates)
  7. Fieldmarshals (expressive Coordinators)
  8. Inventors (expressive Engineers)
  9. Crafters (attentive Operators)
  10. Composers (attentive Entertainers)
  11. Inspectors (attentive Administrators)
  12. Protectors (attentive Conservators)
  13. Counselors (attentive Mentors)
  14. Healers (attentive Advocates)
  15. Masterminds (attentive Coordinators)
  16. Architects (attentive Engineers)

Thus, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

Now, each of those sixteen possibilities is also covered by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is arguably one of the most popular personality models available today…

  1. Provider is ESFJ.
  2. Protector is ISFJ.
  3. Supervisor is ESTJ.
  4. Inspector is ISTJ.
  5. Performer is ESFP.
  6. Composer is ISFP.
  7. Promoter is ESTP.
  8. Crafter is ISTP.
  9. Champion is ENFP.
  10. Healer is INFP.
  11. Teacher is ENFJ.
  12. Counselor is INFJ.
  13. Inventor is ENTP.
  14. Architect is INTP.
  15. Fieldmarshal is ENTJ.
  16. Mastermind is INTJ.

So, here’s a summary, in case that was all a bit confusing…

Myers-Briggs & Keirsey Summary
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While the two personality indicators seem similar on a high-level, there are a few important differences. You can read about them in-depth here, but here’s a quick overview…

  1. Myers-Briggs focuses on how people think / feel vs. actual behavior.
  2. Myers-Briggs focuses more on introversion / extraversion.
  3. Myers-Briggs sorts by function attitudes (e.g. thinking, intuitive, feeling, sensing) vs. temperament.

How This Is Currently Being Translated to CRO

Now, marketers and optimizers are taking all of the personality concepts above and applying them to conversion rate optimization. It’s slightly more complex than this, but here are a few examples for each buyer modality…

  • Competitive
    1. They want to know your product is the best and will make them the best.
    2. Provide concrete proof and avoid exaggerated claims.
  • Spontaneous
    1. Sales, discounts and time-sensitive offers pop.
    2. Clarity above all else; they want to move quickly.
    3. Make the call to action easy to find and simple to act on.
  • Methodical
    1. Back up every statement, use solid numbers.
    2. Provide trust icons.
    3. Be as detailed as possible, be aware of your fine print.
  • Humanistic
    1. Focus on social proof, show faces and actual customers / staff on your site.
    2. Allow interaction, user-generated content.

The Problem With Keirsey, Myers-Briggs & Others

BuzzFeed, ironically known for its ridiculous quizzes, decided to conduct an informal experiment. They asked four people to write down their date of birth, city of birth and favorite color. Then, Dr. Faryl Reingold privately gave them the results of their “personality test” based on the information they provided.

All four people read their personalized personality test results and then commented on how surprisingly accurate they were. One person described it as “spooky” and another said, and I quote, “The last line cuts me to my core.”

The truth? All of them were given the exact same results.

“FarylDr. Faryl Reingold, Occupational Therapist:

“This probably felt pretty personal, though, right? I mean, two minutes ago, it felt like it was really about you. The reason it feels so personal is that, in fact, it is very, very general so it can apply to anybody.

This is called the Barnum effect. This is basically what you would find in a lot of online personality tests, a lot of online horoscopes, a lot of newspaper horoscopes.” (via BuzzFeed)

So Many Models to Choose From

There are a number of different personality models out there today and many are commercial. According to Vox, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator pulls in about $20M per year. But there are many other models, like DiSC.

Hell, some people claim to be able to sort you into a category based on which shape you “identify with best”.

Brian Cugelman of AlterSpark adds…

“BrianDr. Brian Cugelman, AlterSpark:

“Myers-Briggs is just one of many systems. I think it carries a little bit of truth… just as all these systems do. They all have their own pros and cons, they classify people in different ways. Validation studies show that there are a lot of similarities between the systems, so there’s a little bit of truth in all of them.

There’s no magic solution for how to divide up people.

We’re only as good as our model. It should be empirical rather than theoretical… Myers-Briggs is a little bit of both.”

The History of Modern Personality Tests

Let’s take a big step back and look at the history. In 1921, Carl Jung hypothesized that people fall into a variety of types. However, he openly acknowledged that most people don’t fit neatly into just one type. He famously wrote, “Every individual is an exception to the rule.”

In 1945, Katharine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, decided to run with Carl Jung’s hypothesis. Unfortunately, neither had any formal training in psychology and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was born.

In 1984, the Keirsey Temperament Sorted was introduced via the book Please Understand Me. It’s based heavily on the work of Isabel Briggs Myers and Carl Jung.

So, to be clear, buyer modalities are based on a hypothesis from 1921 that even the creator didn’t believe was completely valid. It’s been reshuffled by people who have no scientific background to generate revenue.

Those who aren’t making money off of it? Well, they have a pretty big bone to pick…

MBTI Search Results 1

MBTI Search Results 2

MBTI Search Results 3

MBTI Search Results 4

MBTI Search Results 5

Still, They Remain Accepted in the CRO Industry

Still, marketers talk about the modalities as if they’re an absolute truth. Many will advise you to appeal to all of the buyer modalities. In an article for CrazyEgg, Angus Lynch of GetRooster.com had this to say…

Ultimately, it’s important to appeal to all 4 modalities within digital experiences, but some sites appeal more to certain buyer types.

What About Psychological Backfiring?

A major problem with appealing to all of the buyer modalities is psychological backfiring, which occurs when psychology is poorly applied and the exact opposite of the intended behavior is triggered. Brian explains…

“BrianDr. Brian Cugelman, AlterSpark:

“Let’s say you make an authority appeal. If you have someone with a more conformist, submissive personality, for them, an authority appeal makes sense. But what happens when you have someone that’s rebellious, someone who doesn’t like to be told what to do? In this case, you think you’re optimizing for everyone, but you could be backfiring.

There are many people who are susceptible to social proof, to seeing what other people have done. However, there are those with an individualist attitude, who don’t respond well to social pressure. Those who are community-driven will respond well to social proof, but those who don’t have a strong social need, will not. It can backfire; sometimes people want to do what everyone else is not doing.

You have to understand your people. The problem is, most people don’t understand these relations… they don’t even talk about the backfiring.”

In trying to appeal to all of the buyer modalities, you risk appealing to none. In the same article as above, Angus suggests…

Marketers should hypothesize the type of buyer making up the majority of their visitors, then test these hypotheses on landing pages, homepages, checkout pages, and exit pop-ups.

A better solution would be to conduct conversion research to find out who your visitors and customers are, and how they want to buy. No hypothesis, no buyer modalities needed. Why assume based on a vague psychological theory instead of just conducting the research? Easier is rarely better.

We’re Just Not That Different, Guys

Bart Schutz of Online Dialogue and The Wheel of Persuasion says it best…

Bart SchutzDr. Bart Schutz, Online Dialogue:

“We think our personalities matter, but scientifically we just don’t differ that much. ‘We are unique as humanity, but not as humans.’”

The truth is a lot of people fall somewhere in the middle. Take the introversion-extraversion spectrum, for example. I would describe myself as an introvert, but do I fall to an extreme where I never (or even rarely) display extraverted traits? No. And likely, neither do you.

Brian agrees with Bart, adding that personality models need to deal with extremes…

“BrianDr. Brian Cugelman, AlterSpark:

“The problem is a lot of people fall in the middle. It’s hard to sell a personality system if everyone is sort of similar. So, what they tend to do is try to push people into one bucket or another. You can easily feel artificially pushed.

If there systems are not well-designed, you’re going to have contradictory traits.

Most people are only slightly more or slightly less, and what they do is try to create a bigger contrast. Otherwise, the system doesn’t work.”

While it feels nice to be able to fit neatly into a box, to identify with something like introvert or extravert (for example), humans aren’t that simple. More often than not, they are only slightly more or slightly less than the average. Personality tests and, thus, the buyer modality theory artificially push people to inaccurate extremes.

Are All Personality Models Meaningless?

According to both Brian and Bart, scientists favor the Big Five personality model. Essentially, the model says there are five factors of personality to consider…

  1. Openness to Experience – How curious are you? Do you appreciate adventure? Are you creative? Are you imaginative and independent?
  2. Conscientiousness – How organized are you? How dependable are you? How disciplined? How stubborn and obsessive?
  3. Extraversion – How much energy do you have? How assertive and social are you? How attention-seeking are you?
  4. Agreeableness – How compassionate are you? Do you value cooperation? How trusting and helpful are you?
  5. Neuroticism – Do you feel negative emotions easily? How emotionally stable are you? Do you have control over your impulses?

Instead of being forced into an extreme, you’re rated on each factor. For example, your agreeableness rating might be 88% (leaning towards friendly / compassionate vs. detached / analytical) and your neuroticism rating might be 22% (leaning towards secure / confident vs. sensitive / nervous).

But even the scientific model is difficult to apply…

Bart SchutzDr. Bart Schutz, Online Dialogue:

“Myers-Briggs is easy to apply, but useless and non-scientific. The Big Five is the only valid and reliable personality framework, but it is hard to apply.”

How This All Applies to CRO

So, the big question is how all of this personality talk applies to conversion rate optimization. In reality, it doesn’t apply well at all.

Both Brian and Bart question the validity of the science behind the buying modalities and discuss how difficult it can be to apply any personality model, even a valid and reliable one, to online marketing and optimization.

Instead of guessing which buyer modality your visitors fit into or appealing to all four, simply conduct proper conversion research. That will help you answer the same questions, albeit more accurately.

  • Who are my visitors / customers?
  • What are my visitors’ intentions?
  • What demographics am I dealing with?
  • What are my visitors’ objections and fears?
  • Is your messaging aligned with what your visitors want to hear?
  • Does your value proposition resonate with your visitors?
  • How do they like to buy?
  • What is stopping them from converting?
  • What should I test?

Personality models have tricked us (to the tune of over $20M a year) into thinking we’re all vastly different people with vastly different wants and needs.

It’s true that some visitors will be more spontaneous than others and some will care more about social proof, for example. But you can’t put people in exaggerated personality boxes and claim to be able to predict their on-site thoughts / behavior.

Personality models, especially the buyer modality model, are not easily applied or a valid replacement for conversion research.

Conclusion

The buyer modalities are based on Keirsey’s temperaments, which are based on Myers-Briggs, which is based on Carl Jung’s work, who once said, “Every individual is an exception to the rule.” In short? They’re totally meaningless.

It’s scary enough to think that personality tests like Myers-Briggs are being used to predict career compatibility and success. Don’t let it dictate how you optimize your site, too.

The best thing you can do for yourself is:

  1. Be aware that people make decisions and respond to persuasion in different ways.
  2. Conduct conversion research to figure out what will work best for your site.

Using buyer modalities is like taking a shot in the dark at a target that’s constantly changing shape. [Tweet It!]

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Join the Conversation Add Your Comment

  1. Great piece Shanelle. Brought me back to my grad school days at U of Michigan when we studied psychometrics and personality test construction.

    1. Shanelle Mullin

      Thanks Rob! Glad you enjoyed the article.

  2. Omg, I couldn’t agree more. I actually had a prospect come to me with a 57-slide deck he created, essentially slicing and dicing all these Myers-Briggs attributes into different fictional buyer personas, but no actual voice-of-customer, analytics, or visitor behaviour data. All I ended up asking was: “Yeah, this is great, but um, have you actually talked to your customers yet?” Short answer: No.

    Had to decline the project because the client wanted to “skip the research and get some quick wins” based on his personality framework. I’m all for quick wins, but not for running tests based on fiction. To say nothing of the fact that — as popular as MB testing is among HR departments — most personality psychologists see it as discredited hogwash that just won’t die:

    http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-28315137

    1. Shanelle Mullin

      Always a bad sign when a client wants to “skip the research”.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your experience, Momoko!

  3. It would be about time that corporate giants understand that boxing people and technological selling simply don’t work – the future will be determined by how they perform for their ‘buyers’ (a.k.a. real people), and over long periods of time, not how well they exploit them.

    1. Shanelle Mullin

      I’m all for identifying and categorizing actual visitor and customer behavior, but it should be done based on research, not a discredited personality test.

  4. So good, Shanelle. Whether you call them avatars, personas, archetypes, or modalities, segmenting customers feels good to marketers because it’s easier to target their likes, wants, needs by broad categories. (A rebel? Here’s the formula for that archetype. Plug and play.) Most of it is guesswork.

    I worked with a $100M company that had their target customer perfectly defined. They knew her hobbies, where she lived, how much money she made, etc. She even had a name. They built dozens of products for her and spent millions to support them. Then they did some customer research and found she wasn’t their typical customer. What a waste.

    1. Shanelle Mullin

      Thanks so much, Rob. Always appreciate you reading and sharing your experiences.

  5. No framework is “meaningless” if it helps learn/discern meaningful insights about user behavior/preferences.

    My personal experience is that buying modalities and other personality frameworks can help us to learn and understand different communication and behavioral patterns. The point of these frameworks is NOT to exactly identify specifics of an individual; doing so would be impossible since we are all inherently unique. However, learning to recognize PATTERNS can be very useful in forming hypotheses, adapting communication, and planning content — both in life and in marketing.

    REAL LIFE EXAMPLE:
    I typically open client kickoff meetings by asking, “Besides the business KPI, what does success look like to you?” Below are some responses from a meeting last week:
    A- “I’ll be happy if we can break our current high record.”
    B- “Success for me is learning the new methodology and adding accountability and checkpoints to our process.”
    C- “Success for me would be learning cool new tricks that’ll help save time in my role.”
    D- “I’ll be happy if all tech, marketing, and brand teams are less likely to kill each other after learning this process. I’m just eager to unite the teams.”

    Any of these sound familiar?

    Amongst a team pf 20, those 4 responses (and 1-2 more similar options) were recurring response themes. The responses above interestingly map respectively to the buying modalities — competitive, methodical, spontaneous, and humanistic. As a result, I have a better idea of team members’ communication preferences (fast/slow, succinct/detailed, visual/stepped, etc.) and possible pain points or triggers. I have probable insight as to who would like me to get to the bottom line, and who would be most vested in forming a good relationship. To me, these insights have proven PRICELESS.

    (That’s just a team meeting example. I’ve been building out buying modality patterns, and hybrids, from insights learned since 2010. I regularly see the patterns in everyday decision making. For marketing, it’s just one of many frameworks I just naturally consider and apply.)

    BOTTOM LINE… Find frameworks/models with (A) patterns that you can easily recognize AND (B) actionable hypotheses/insights that you can apply in useful ways. If you can’t see the pattern or the insight isn’t useful, the model won’t be effective for you.

    We live in a complex world. There’s no magical, catch-all scientific formula that works. However, if we can identify useful patterns of similarities and differences, I believe we can take leaps forward in learning and understanding others, ….and THAT is never meaningless.

    1. Peep Laja

      “No framework is “meaningless” if it helps learn/discern meaningful insights about user behavior/preferences.”

      I agree with this, and the point of this article is that frameworks based on Myers Briggs are meaningless since they lead to bullshit insights. Might as well roll the dice and group people that way, or check their astrological sign. It’s a hoax. 50% of people who re-take the test get a completely different result.

  6. Thanks.
    Great read!

    @Angie Schottmuller: Thanks for adding some nuances to this piece.

    Have a great week everybody!

    1. Shanelle Mullin

      Thanks for reading, Sigurd!

  7. There are some self contradictions and false conclusions:

    1)
    Expert says:
    Dr. Brian Cugelman, AlterSpark:“… I think it carries a little bit of truth… Validation studies show that there are a lot of similarities between the systems, so there’s a little bit of truth in all of them.”

    Your conclusions:
    “They’re totally meaningless.”
    “… they lead to bullshit insights”

    2)
    Expert says:
    Dr. Bart Schutz, Online Dialogue:
    “Myers-Briggs is easy to apply… ”

    Your conclusiuon:
    “… personality models as a whole are extremely difficult to apply to online marketing and optimization”
    “Personality models, especially the buyer modality model, are not easily applied …”

    3)
    One expert says:
    Dr. Bart Schutz, Online Dialogue:
    “We think our personalities matter, but scientifically we just don’t differ that much.”
    – Personalities does not matter
    – Scientifically we are not much different

    Other expert says something completely opposite:
    Dr. Brian Cugelman, AlterSpark:
    “If you have someone with a more conformist, submissive personality, for them, an authority appeal makes sense. But what happens when you have someone that’s rebellious, someone who doesn’t like to be told what to do?”
    – Personalities does matter
    – People can be quite different

    1. Shanelle Mullin

      Hey Gena! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

      1. There is a little bit of truth to Myers-Briggs, just as there is with most personality models. However, the Big 5 is the most accurate. Trying to apply Myers-Briggs to online marketing and optimization is totally meaningless and will lead to bullshit insights.

      2. When you read your INTJ (or whatever) personality profile, it feels accurate and practical. It’s easy to then take that personality profile and apply it to various areas of your life. Perhaps that’s why it’s so widely used. However, it’s scientifically useless and very difficult to meaningfully apply to online marketing and optimization.

      3. When speaking to both Brian and Bart, they confirmed that few people sway to extremes. Of course, some do, but it is rare. Brian goes on to say… “The problem is a lot of people fall in the middle. It’s hard to sell a personality system if everyone is sort of similar. So, what they tend to do is try to push people into one bucket or another. You can easily feel artificially pushed.”

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Why the 4 Buyer Modalities Are Totally Meaningless