How Psychology Can Make Your Emails More Appealing


Your email marketing campaigns aren’t as effective as they could be. How do we know? Well, unless you’re getting a 100% open rate on every campaign — which is rare or nonexistent — there’s room for improvement.

When was the last time you examined the appeal and effectiveness of your email marketing campaign messages? Maybe you’ve let it slide for a while because it requires covering a lot of ground.

Are you making the best use of images? Are you implementing color psychology? What fonts are you using? (Please tell us you’re not using comic sans.) Is the writing good, and does it get your point across well? Most importantly, do your emails elicit the response you want, whether it’s to get someone to buy, sign up, join, or another action?

Those factors are all equally important. But here’s the thing: Every single one of them takes a back seat to your open rate. You could send the most beautifully composed email, with all the right words, colors, and images, but it won’t do you one bit of good if your recipients leave the email unopened, delete it, or, worst of all, unsubscribe from your list. Furthermore, when your open rate steadily decreases or is below average, it can negatively affect your deliverability and impact all your email campaigns.

If your audience isn’t opening your emails, you’re losing money. It’s time to stem the tide — using principles of psychology. That’s right: You can use science-backed techniques from psychology to connect with your customers better on email. Here’s how, from seeking opt-ins to writing subject lines.

Learn why top brands trust Salesforce to help them drive success with email — and how you can manage customer journeys at scale using data from any source.

The Magic of the Double Opt-In

The first step to encouraging your audience to open your marketing emails is to implement the double opt-in when they subscribe. Basically, this is how you ask your subscribers if they’re absolutely sure they want to receive your emails. One click can sometimes be the result of an itchy trigger finger on that mouse. But twice? That’s on purpose, and it makes it more likely they’ll open your emails.

Aside from logistics, the double opt-in is also about respect. There’s a reason email addresses are so highly coveted, and why people are so reticent to give them out.

An email address is a direct line to a person’s daily scope of awareness. It’s a way for you to put information in front of your audience rather than waiting for them to discover your website. It’s a private, intimate avenue of communication. Asking for it requires finesse, and once someone has provided it to you, they expect you to take care of it, not abuse it.

The double opt-in essentially boils down to the reciprocity principle, a basic law of social psychology that says in many social situations, we give back what we receive from others. Start the relationship by showing you respect the person — and the email address they give you — and you set yourself up for returns in both reciprocity and open rates.


Discover Trailhead and get best practices to use when designing and sending an email.


Laser Targeting through Personalization

Do you send the exact same email to everyone on your list? That may not be a big deal when your list is small and you’re still building it. But once you begin to accumulate hundreds and then thousands of names and addresses, personalization becomes paramount.

Segmentation is the best way to start personalizing more effectively. Create segments within your list, but go beyond age, sex, and location. Email marketing optimization tools allow you to collect and analyze customer behavior across platforms to create highly targeted audiences. Those tools collect data about buying habits and shopping history, analyze it, and then create predictive intelligence to help you stay a few steps ahead.

This strategy also relies on the psychology of the first impression. Conventional wisdom tells us that in order to make a good first impression, we must know our audience and be a good listener. In addition, the average time it takes for someone to form an impression is seven seconds. That’s in real life. How long do you think it takes online? You're lucky if you get two seconds. There’s no time to waste in showing your subscribers that you have something of value to offer them.

It’s Not What You Say, It’s How Often You Say It

You’ve evaluated your marketing emails. You’ve applied concepts of color theory and psychology to make your messages look and sound great. You’ve implemented the double opt-in, and have thoroughly segmented your list. Now you’re ready to send your next email campaign.

Before you start sending your subscribers your highly targeted, expertly constructed emails, stop and ask yourself one more important question: How often should you send campaigns?

There’s no right answer. According to the American Psychological Association, while exposure effect has been researched quite a bit, “surprisingly little is known about the attitudinal and cognitive effects of message repetition.”

Email campaign frequency depends on numerous factors, including your vertical, the time of year (seasons/holidays), market fluctuations, special deals, and product popularity, to name just a few. It’s up to you to test your campaigns to learn what your audience prefers, from frequency to day and time of day, and find out how each factor affects your ability to reach your goals.

The goals for your email marketing campaigns rely on what you want to do — sell, educate, and share, for example. When it comes to how often to send your campaigns, the key may be to focus on what you don’t want to do. And you don’t want to contribute to anyone’s stress.

The more often you email your subscribers, the higher the risk that your emails will remain unopened. Competition for inbox attention is at an all-time high, but that doesn’t mean the answer is to be there more often. In fact, the more emails your subscribers receive from you, the easier they’ll be to ignore.

Apply another marketing tactic: scarcity. Send emails when it’s warranted, when you truly have something of value to offer, or when it’s important and you have crucial information to share. But an email once a day about the same offer? Five emails in one week that don’t really say much or make a difference for your subscribers? You’ll undo the foundation of respect you initially laid out, and damage your relationship.

See insights on successful email strategies from Marketing Cloud customers.

Evoke Responses with Subject Lines

The final component in raising your open rate is the subject line. It’s the last factor a subscriber will weigh before giving you that sweet click to open your message. Your subject line can make or break your email, and all the emails that come after it. If you’re not spending as much time writing the subject line as you did writing the rest of the email, you’re doing it wrong.

The ideal subject line will evoke emotion, but remember — there are just as many negative emotions as positive. Rather than trying to manipulate anyone’s heartstrings one way or the other, your best bet will be to follow a Carnegie Mellon University study, which showed people are more likely to open emails with subject lines that evoke curiosity or provide utility.

The study says that when someone is busy (and who isn’t busy these days?), curiosity becomes less important and effective, making the emails with practical, problem-solving headlines the ones that are opened most often. Identifying a problem is the first step to solving it. This is where predictive intelligence will come in handy.

When you write those practical, problem-solving subject lines, keep these tips in mind:

  • Keep it short.
    This is both to avoid losing your readers’ attention and to keep the subject from being truncated in their email interface. While studies show mixed results on subject length versus read rate, the most common subject line length is 41 to 50 characters. This count has been considered a subject line best practice for some time, as readers’ email clients and browsers may keep them from being able to read longer subject lines.
  • Use power words.
    You may not have enough time to elicit any kind of deep emotion, but you can encourage email opens with influential words and phrases. Be aware of spam filter triggers, of which there are many, but most businesses can easily avoid them.
  • Keep the focus on them.
    Avoid using words such as I and we, and opt for you and your instead. People are much more interested in themselves than they are in you.
  • Be specific.
    There’s a difference between creating curiosity and frustrating people with vagueness. Tell them what problem you’ll solve, or what the purpose of your email is. Make them want to open it because they have to know more, not because you’re being cagey.
  • Be accurate.
    Want to know the fastest way to get someone to unsubscribe from your list? Pull a bait and switch. Resist the temptation to use a clickbait subject line to get them to open your email, only to find the actual message is about something else entirely. Remember, it’s about building and then maintaining mutual respect.

Successful email marketing is clearing a series of increasingly higher hurdles. Getting subscribers to open your emails is the second one, but it’s also one of the more difficult ones. Once your open rates start to go up, you should also see a corresponding rise in actions taken and in revenue generated.

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