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A New Secret for Writing Persuasive Marketing Messages

For 2½ years, I’ve been looking for a home to buy. Given that it’s a buyer’s market and the mortgage rates keep dropping, you may wonder why it’s taking so long.

I wondered that myself. My criteria didn’t seem that picky when I came up with them. But I realize now that I should have thrown out the checklist and recognized what the house really needed to fit—my personality. And now that I know that, the results of a recent study published in Psychological Science* don’t surprise me a bit.

The price of advertising

In 2012, advertisers will spend nearly $530 billion to influence people worldwide. Whether their messages promote consumer products, business services, political candidates or homes, the people shelling out the moola want results. That’s why findings from a recent study—and the practical implications—are so critical.

Traditional advertising is often segmented by gender, age, income or education. But the new research shows that persuasive messages work better when they’re tailored to the audience’s unique personality profiles.

“While persuasive messages are often targeted toward specific demographic groups, we wanted to see whether their effectiveness could be improved by targeting personality characteristics that cut across demographic categories,” says study author Jacob Hirsh, from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

To find out, Hirsh and co-authors Sonia Kang, also from Rotman, and Galen Bodenhausen, from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, recruited 324 individuals.

The “Big Five” personality domains

Before we delve further into the study, let’s take a look at the five major domains. Contemporary psychologists have verified that the “Big Five” account for most known personality traits.

The nautical acronyms—OCEAN or CANOE—sum up the personality domains:

Openness: Inventive/curious versus consistent/cautious. Traits: intellectually curious and appreciative of art, emotion, unusual ideas and variety of experiences.

Conscientiousness: Efficient/organized versus easygoing/careless. Traits: disciplined, dutiful, organized, dependable and achievement-oriented.

Extroversion: Outgoing/energetic versus solitary/reserved. Traits: sociable, assertive, talkative, positive, energetic and stimulated by the company of others.

Agreeableness: Friendly/compassionate versus cold/unkind. Traits: helpful, cooperative and sympathetic toward others.

Neuroticism: Sensitive/nervous versus secure/confident. Traits: impulsive, aggressive, angry, anxious, vulnerable and depressed.

The domains are statistical averages based on groups, so individuals exhibit variations. That’s why a person may register high in Openness but still not want to go to the opera.

The researchers noted that each of these personality dimensions is associated with a unique motivational concern. For example, As value a sense of belonging, compassion and interpersonal harmony; Os value intellectual and aesthetic pursuits.

So how do researchers identify the Big Five domains that apply to their subjects? In general, by using either self-descriptive sentences or even single adjectives. Let’s see how these were used in the study of persuasive messages.

A test of persuasive messages

Hirsh and friends exposed each subject to five different advertisements for a cell phone. Each advertisement featured a picture of the phone next to a paragraph of text that was changed to highlight the motivational concerns of a particular personality.

For example, the advertisement tailored to extraverts included the line “With XPhone, you’ll always be where the excitement is”; for neurotics, the line read, “Stay safe and secure with the XPhone.”

Study participants were asked to rate the effectiveness of the ads with questions like, “I find this advertisement to be persuasive”; “this is an effective advertisement”; and “I would purchase this product after seeing this advertisement.”In addition, participants described their own characteristics on a personality questionnaire.

In every case, the advertisements were rated as more effective when they matched the participant’s personality profile.

Use personality to power up persuasive messages

“Personality-based message design may be useful not only for advertisers, but also for fostering any number of outcomes, from health promotion, to civic engagement, to environmental responsibility,” says Hirsh.

So how do you apply the lessons from this research in the real world?

Focus on the personality domain your product or service fits. If your offering serves a security need, for instance, you can bet your neurotic friends will be intrigued. So your marketing collateral can stress how your product or service reduces risk.

Segment marketing materials based on personality type instead of demographic characteristics. Here’s a quick look at how you could vary the phone ad for each personality domain:

O: Capture the world around you with our 8 megapixel camera

C: Keep up with business emails even when you’re out of the office

E: Know where the next event is—always!

A: Connect with friends and family wherever you are

N: Use our free service to find and protect your phone if you lose it

Develop marketing collateral that motivates each of the personality domains. Make sure your marketing collateral includes features/benefits for each personality type. For example, if you browse the Web site for the Apple iPhone, you’ll find extensive information on every key aspect—enough to motivate any of the “Big Five” personality domains.

Tailor the communication type itself for the personality domain. Depending on their personality, your audience members may be influenced by different types of communication as well as different messages. For example, As will be motivated by a people-oriented approach that includes testimonials, case studies and anecdotes; Ns will appreciate a fact-based approach with tests and proof that dispel their skepticism.

Create variations on your product or service for each personality domain. Obviously this is easy to do with services—for example, one B2B firm I work with offers three levels of repair and maintenance services for the equipment they sell. But many companies also offer a range of products with different positioning, packaging and pricing. There’s not just one kind of Coke, after all.

Let your audience choose. Online marketing in particular provides ample opportunity for personalization. For example, a prospect or customer’s previous activity on your Web site can offer clues to their personality. Better still, you can let your visitors pick the kind of information they’re looking for and personalize it to make it more relevant to them. You’ll learn more about your audience that way too.

PS—So what’s my personality type? O, C, a bit of A and, yes, N. Which is why I’m closing in on a home that appeals to my aesthetic sense, needs work I know I’ll do, offers substantial privacy, provides ample room for entertainment and comes at a price that finally felt right after three offers.

*Hirsh, Jacob, Sonia Kang and Galen Bodenhausen, ”Personalized Persuasion: Tailoring Persuasive Appeals to Recipients’ Personality Traits,” Psychological Science, 30 April 2012.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Insightful post. will definitely read this blog again

  2. Glad you found it helpful, Consulting Cafe. I try to pause before I write to consider the personality domains of my audience and write to them.

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