If you’re normal, you checked your email within the past 60 minutes. If you’re even more normal, you don’t even "check your email." Instead, it’s always there -- pinging, dinging, distracting your mind, chewing up your workday, and making you stressed out and unproductive.
Email is a monster. Each of us has our ways of whimpering and giving in to the monster, or rising to slay it with technological indignation.
But whatever the case, email is what it is. And it’s here to stay.
And as a marketer, you need to understand how the email obsession works so you can design more effective email campaigns. If we understand the psychology of checking email, we can create emails our recipients actually want to open and interact with. Here are a few core principles that you should know.
Email addiction happens due to something called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is part of the normal way our mind learns things. In the case of email, our mind learns that if we do something (open our email tab, for example) then we get something else (new mail, and the excitement that brings).
Here’s how it works.
Operant conditioning, according to B. F. Skinner, applies to “active behavior that operates upon the environment to generate consequences" The action -- checking email -- is reinforced by the consequence -- we getemail.
Lesson: Even though people may hate email, we love the pleasurable feeling of getting email. Don’t shrink back from sending marketing emails -- just make sure you're sending the right email content to the right people so you're associating your emails with a good feeling.
Checking email is a huge distraction.
In one experiment, researchers found that technology workers became distracted after only 11 minutes of work. It took them 25 minutes to return to their task.
Email is the primary cause of workplace distraction. Even though we feel like we’re working -- email is work, right? -- it keeps us from getting more important work done.
Lesson: Distract customers in the right way. If you can use your email message to assure them that it won’t take much of their time, make them more productive, etc., then you are doing exactly what their minds are primed to desire.
Checking email is a form of procrastination.
Procrastination is a close cousin of distraction. Procrastination has the same negative consequence of distraction -- not doing what we are supposed to be doing.
We prefer email as a method of procrastination, because we tend to feel better about ourselves than if we were just watching cat videos on YouTube.
Besides, we think that checking our email will “only take a minute.” Usually, the “minute” turns into much longer ...
Lesson: Make your emails short, so people can at least feel like they are getting through it quickly. Instead of creating a long email, create a chain of links or steps. Each sequence in the step gives the user a sense of progress and accomplishment.
People check their email more often than they think they do.
One email study asked users how often they thought they checked their email. The participants said that they checked their email every hour.
Actually, they were checking their email every five minutes (source, source). The irresistible urge of email keeps us checking even when we don’t realize it.
Lesson: Although there is a science to the best time to send emails, don’t stress about it. Most users are checking their email all the time, and they’ll see your email, regardless of when you send it.
Email wastes our time.
This point is obvious. Checking email is a massive waste of time. Various studies have discovered that we spend a quarter of our workday on email.
Even though it’s a waste of time, email is necessary for today’s knowledge worker. We can’t simply ignore our email or leave it alone. We have to return to it, deal with it, and do business on it.
Lesson: Respect the fact that people spend a lot of time on email. They want to get through their email quickly. If you want them to act on your email, then your email must communicate the big idea in the most direct way. Clear subject lines, big headlines, and a brief message are the ingredients for a successful email.
It seems that the urge to check it is disproportionally [sic] high and out of sync with reality and well-being."
She makes an insightful point. We check our email so habitually and eagerly, but it doesn’t make us any happier.
In fact, it makes us feel let down. Colier calls it the “lottery brain,” a mental phenomenon that makes us do stupid things. Scientific American labels the lottery brain “dangerous,” and calls it “irrational.”
Lesson: Since people often feel sad after checking their email, try to provide an antidote in your marketing emails. If you can improve an individual's sense of wellbeing, you have a much higher chance of standing out in their crowded inbox.
Checking email stresses us out.
Checking email often doesn’t seem like a stressor. We tend to think that not checking our email would be more stressful.
As it turns out, however, checking your email often could be a cause of stress and unhappiness.
One study group was told to check their email three times a day. The other group was told to keep their email open and to check it frequently.
The outcome of the study was predictable. After testing, researchers compiled the data and determined that “limiting the number of times people checked their email per day lessened tension during a particularly important activity and lowered overall day-to-day stress.”
Lesson: Since email causes stress, give your customers a way to escape stress in your email. Selecting the right colors, subject line, tone, and content can subtly reduce stress as they view and interact with the email.
Overall, the psychology of checking email can be summed up in three statements:
It’s an addicting habit.
To create a successful email marketing approach, you should understand and adapt to these typical responses.
Your email recipients are subconsciously seeking to be distracted. They will choose to be distracted by whatever best promises relief from stress. Eliminating stress, whether through a product or a message, is a helpful way to appeal to customers and to gain their respect and attention.
If you made it to the end of your article without checking your email once, congratulations. And if you learned a thing or two about the psychology of email, then consider yourself ready to go and make your marketing better.
What psychological insights have improved your email marketing?
Originally published Sep 23, 2015 6:00:00 AM, updated June 09 2021