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Carly Stec

By Carly Stec

Jan 14, 2015


Email Marketing
Email Marketing

The Psychology Behind Email Subject Lines That Get Opened

Carly Stec

By Carly Stec

Jan 14, 2015

The Psychology Behind Email Subject Lines That Get Opened

The_psychology_behind_email_subject_lines_that_get_openedDid you know that upon meeting someone, your trustworthiness is judged within a tenth of a second or less? 

With people conditioned to make such rapid judgment calls based on appearance, marketers are tasked with turning up email subject lines that are attractive enough to set recipients in motion. 

What's even scarier is the idea that the actual email itself will go entirely unseen if the recipient deems your subject line unfit. 

While you can bet that your recipient's inbox is just as unruly as yours, it's important that you generate an understanding of the way people process information in order to craft email subject lines that speak directly to their motivations. 

In an effort to help you actually get your emails opened, we've detailed four psychologically-backed tips for approaching your next subject line. 

Ask a question

According to Customer Think, humans are conditioned to answer questions to the point where it starts to feel like a reflex. 


Quite simply, questions stimulate the brain. More specifically, they target the neocortex, which is in charge of sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and language. 

The key to effectively using questions in subject lines is to focus on aligning the question presented with a pain point felt by the recipient. 

Let's say you know this particular list struggles with driving traffic to their website. A logical question to present them with would be something like "Want to increase website traffic in 2015?"

This question speaks directly to their pain point and provides them with an opportunity to begin actively thinking about their need for your product or service. 

Promote exclusivity

Anyone who has taken Psychology 101 in college has heard of Maslow's Hierachy of Needs. If you slept through Psychology 101 (oops), here's a refresher:


You'll notice that towards the top of the pyramid sits esteem, which refers to our need for mastery, status, prestige, etc. 

Marketers have found that creating content that aims to appeal to these needs has proved effective in drumming up interest and motivating people to take a desired action. 

Let's take a look at this concept in the wild:


As you can see, I get an email from my beauty subscription service, Ipsy, at least once a day. While I normally don't have time to get to them all, this one in particular caught my interest. 

"Exclusively for me!?"

I'm in. 

Add personalization

In 2006, Dennis Carmody and Michael Lewis conducted a study that explored brain activation patterns elicited as a response to participants hearing their own name in contrast to other people's names. 

Their research revealed that hearing your own name, as opposed to someone else's, triggers a unique brain functioning activation in the middle frontal cortex, middle and superior temporal cortex, and cuneus. 

While this study explored the auditory reaction to hearing one's name, we have found that people also respond positively to seeing their own name appear in marketing material. 

Think about Coca Cola's "Share a Coke" campaign. By replacing their logos with 250 popular names and terms of endearment, the company's was able to transcend over a decade of declining sales.

So when it comes to your subject lines, leverage personalization. With The Science of Email Marketing reporting that emails including first name personalization had higher click-through rates than those that did not (5.8% vs 7%), you simply can't afford not to. 

Tailor the content

Both context and relevance play a huge part in our ability to process and retain information. 

Not to go nerdy on you, but the reticular activating system (RAS) serves as a brain structure that is responsible for regulating both arousal and sleep-wake transitions.

As cited in an article from Social Media Examiner, "the RAS is associated with the concept of selective attention, which means that we naturally orient to information or ideas that we are invested in."

With that said, it's critically important that we employ relevant, actionable subject lines that aim to rise above the noise. We've found that the best way to ensure this type of uber relevance is to leverage list segmentation.

Let's say you're responsible for marketing a college bookstore, and you're tasked with announcing the arrival of new merchandise. Rather than blast out a generalized email to the entire database with a subject line like "This just in: new merchandise for 2015", consider how segmentation can be used to help you stand out. 

Announcing specific merchandise based off the purchasing behavior of specific lists (females, males, departments, etc) will help you to more effectively earn the attention of your recipients. 

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