The science of email marketing: How psychology can help email open rates
We’ve all heard of the old (debunked) study that said flashing the words “Eat popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” between the images of a movie for just fractions of a second in the 1950s drove sales by over 50%.
If that were true, then advertising would be pretty easy — and absolutely terrifying.
But while there’s no exact science to getting audiences to respond to messaging, there are some near-universal human psychological behaviors developed throughout years of evolution that might play a part in why audiences engage with or ignore the dozens of email messages they receive each day.
Content produced in collaboration with Emma.
Four common psychology tips advertisers can tap into for more engaging email marketing:
1. Don’t fill in all the blanks for your audience
The science: Quick, what’s the subject line of the email you’re drafting right now? What was the subject line of the last email you sent? If you’re having a hard time remembering that last email, you’re totally normal. Thanks to a phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect, the human brain allots much more attention to incomplete tasks than completed actions. Which makes us much more likely to respond to information we recognize as “incomplete.”
The tip: Use copy that gives audiences…
A task to complete, like filling in the blank after an ellipsis. An open-ended statement in the subject line is much more likely to grab attention because the Zeigarnik Effect means our brains devote more attention to something that appears incomplete until we’re able to resolve it.
2. Tap into the audience’s lizard brain
The science: Whether we’d like to admit it or not, our behavior shares more than a few similarities with that of wild animals. And as much as we try to avoid snap decisions, those gut reaction, fight-or-flight responses have been saving our tails for eons. The “lizard brain” instinct that makes gut reactions in three second or less is called the amygdala, and it’s responsible for all those “just feels right” or “just feels wrong” reactions.
The tip: Tapping into that fight-or-flight response in your subject line and header will get audiences clicking before they’ve had a chance to rationalize their decision. Choose language that evokes excitement, urgency, or even low-grade anxiety to earn engagement.
3. Genuinely do the right thing
The science: If the buy one/get one philosophy behind Tom’s Shoes has taught us anything, it’s that consumers really like companies that try to put some good into the world.
According to a study by Haavas Media, 53% of consumers say they would pay 10% more for products from socially responsible companies. Research shows that consumers also think the products of companies that give back are superior to those that don’t.
The tip: Don’t try to fake it. Today’s consumers are pretty savvy about which companies are actually trying to put good into the world and which companies are cooking up a PR stunt. Look for opportunities that actually align with your brand and its values. Social responsibility should feel organic and on-brand.
4. Be bold
The science: We talk a lot about ad blindness these days, and since the average consumer sees around 10,000 ads per day, it’s no wonder that they’d be skimming (or flat out ignoring) most of those messages. And consumer attention span isn’t any better when it comes to emails. Studies show that about 80% of your audience is only skimming your email.
That’s probably why so many ads are in simple black and white with a single, colorful message that stands out for the skimmers. The Von Restorff Effect is the name for the phenomenon wherein something that stands out from the background immediately becomes more memorable.
The tip: A big, bright call to action in an email works so much better than text links because it stands out from the uniform text and the background. You can also surround them with plenty of white space, choose a contrasting color, and use bold, active language to make them pop even more.
For more science-based email marketing tips, download Emma’s white paper, “The Science to Winning the Inbox.”
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