The Psychology Behind Effective Email Marketing


Nancy Harhut is an expert when it comes to blending creativity with science to prompt a response in marketing.

Nancy was named the NEDMA Direct Marketer of the Year, Ad Club Top 100 Creative Influencer, and OMI Top 40 Digital Marketing Strategist.  She's held senior creative management positions with Wilde Agency, Hill Holliday, Mullen and Digitas. Nancy and her teams have won more than 150 awards for their effective digital marketing and direct marketing strategies.

Today she offers her insight into psychology and how it influences email marketing.


Email Marketing is Alive and Kicking

Nancy points out that email marketing is still a strong line of support for marketers. In fact, it is still the primary channel for most marketers. One survey that Nancy highlights found that 89% of marketers use email for lead generation.

Email is powerful, and clearly something that every marketer must use correctly. Most importantly, a marketer must know how to talk to their customers on the receiving end of each email – by applying some psychology.

The Power of Psychology Combined with Email Marketing

The best-kept secret in the industry is psychology paired with email marketing.

When creating integrated campaigns, it is important for marketers to use psychological techniques. The same techniques can then bleed into other communications, such as social media marketing.

Marketers are always competing against mass emails. In fact, Nancy points out that the average person receives 85 emails per day, and business executives receive even more. Therefore, marketers must find a way to stand out among the sea of emails waiting for someone in their inbox.

The Subconscious is a Powerful Tool

One significant takeaway that Nancy offers is an observation from a Harvard Business School professor by the name of Gerald Zaltman, who says that 95% of decision-making is subconscious. So, a company must find a way to attract the subconscious and get people to act.

Essentially, companies need to break through the decision autopilot process.

The Essential Components for Better Email Psychology

Nancy shares her tips for the best practices in all aspects of email marketing and psychology integration.

Subject Lines: Never Ignore the Most Powerful Line in Email

A subject line is important, but Nancy says that they must remain short, but compelling.

She recommends 35 characters or so because most users are opening emails on their mobile devices. The most important words should be positioned at the front of those 35 characters too.

She recommends magnet eye words, which are words scientifically proven to attract the human eye. These words include “new,” “free,” and any other word that provides value to the customer directly.

A person is more attracted to a subject line if their name appears in it. So, Nancy recommends using software that puts the recipient’s name in there as part of the magnet word integration.

Use Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How

To make a compelling email for readers, Nancy says that the basics of journalism and psychology bleed into email marketing.

Companies need to include the who, what, when, where, why, and how in each email. These are trigger words that tell a person to act, what they can do, where they can go, and why they should consider the offer in the email.

Integrate Behavior Principles in Email Marketing

There are three behavior principles: scarcity, availability bias, and social proof. Each of these is important in email marketing, says Nancy.

·       Scarcity Principle: Scarcity refers to a customer that knows what they want, but cannot have it. Humans always want what they cannot have, so if that thing they want is available right now, they will take advantage of that. Telling people that something is available to only them or a limited number of people strikes on the scarcity level too.

·       Availability Bias: When a person can recall something, or imagine it, they are more likely to act. Marketers must use the “what if” theory when marketing their product. They need to help the reader imagine a time they did not have that product and how it affected them.

·       Social Proof: People do what others do. They follow the leader, more or less. Therefore, social proof in email marketing talks about something that is back in stock that recently sold out, a best seller and integrates words that tell a reader the product they are getting has social proof.

Creating a Call to Action that Demands Action

Call to action statements in email marketing determine if that recipient is going to act. Nancy recommends just one call to action in an email so that nothing is competing.

A good call to action is one that forces them to act now, rather than giving them the option of acting later. Before the call to action, using social proof and authority can help encourage the reader to take action, says Nancy.

What Is Gained versus What Is Missed

Another psychological aspect of email marketing is playing benefits against one another. While an email is powerful when it highlights the benefits, it is just as powerful when it touches on the pain factor.

For example, sending an email with the subject line “5 Ways to Improve Your Business,” might interest someone enough to open it. After all, it tells them the benefit outright. However, an email with the subject line “5 Ways to Ruin Your Business” provokes a pain response. No business owner wants to contribute to the demise of their company, so they will open that email and read further.

User-Friendly, Scannable Content

Any time an email is sent out, marketers must consider the mobile factor. More people open their emails on their phone, so the email needs a single column, and it should be easy to scan to see if reading it is worth it. You can set up an email template to ensure that your design elements will translate to mobile. 

Furthermore, links in the content must be easy to click on even with a mobile device ­– so omit small links.

Adding Touches of Psychology into Email Marketing Makes for Higher Conversions

There are numerous benefits to adding psychology to email marketing, but the biggest is that it will increase conversion rates. The click through on an email campaign can increase rapidly when these techniques are used well.

You can reach Nancy at and discover more actionable insights by following her on twitter at @nharhut.

About Nancy Harhut

An unusually strategy-minded, results-oriented creative director, Nancy is nationally recognized for best-in-class creative. She and her teams have won over 200 awards for direct marketing effectiveness.  In her role as Chief Creative Officer, Nancy draws upon more than 20 years of senior creative management experience honed at Wilde Agency, Hill Holliday, Mullen and Digitas, where she worked with such clients as Dell, IBM, Novartis, House of Seagram, Bank of America, AT&T, American Express, Sheraton, Nationwide, and GM, among others.

Nancy holds a BS in Journalism from Boston University. She is a frequent contributor to industry trade magazines and a requested speaker at marketing conferences.