Using the Psychology of Email Addiction for Marketing

Andrea Fryrear on Email Marketing

Whether you’re setting up email marketing for the first time or focusing on a brand new email marketing strategy, understanding your subscribers’ behavior is a great way to create impactful campaigns.

One of the most common email-related behaviors is the compulsive inbox checking known as email addiction.

On average, we check our email every hour, and sometimes more frequently than that.

This might sound like good news for email marketers who are looking for every possible chance to engage subscribers, but there are complex factors affecting our addictions to our inboxes. Getting a better understanding of this behavior can give us an advantage in getting our emails opened and read.

Email and ADHD

Nancy Colier argues in the Huffington Post that email is addictive, “because it contains what I see as the four features of highly habitual/addictive behaviors:

  1. Attention, specifically, attention is focused, but mindful presence is NOT necessary.
  2. Distraction is readily offered. We are pulled away from whatever we were (or were not) doing.
  3. Hands. We use our hands in executing the task (which I surmise is related to the evolutionary importance of hands as a tool).
  4. Delight is possible through the behavior (lottery mind).”

We check our email compulsively not because we expect to find something amazing, exciting, or life-changing, but because we might. This compulsive behavior doesn’t make a whole lot of empirical sense, but neither does most addictive behavior.

Consider what each of these four characteristics means for us as email designers:

  1. Attention: we are likely to get attention from our audience, but no more. We shouldn’t expect “mindful presence,” nor should that be required to follow our email’s logic.
  2. Distraction: People may be checking their email in order to stop (or put off) doing an undesirable task. This is why entertaining subject lines tend to perform well — we’re delivering on this need, even if it is done as a sales tool.
  3. Hands: Videos, surveys, or other interactive features keep hands even more involved. This activity can lead to clicks and conversion, so keep this tendency in mind.
  4. Delight: Tempt subscribers with the prospect of a lottery win (but make sure you’re delivering on whatever promises you make).

Hitting most or all of these characteristics in your email campaigns can pay big dividends, in opens, clicks, and post-click conversions.

As Colier points out, “Behaviors with these four features have a great capacity to hook us and hypnotize us into paying a lot of attention to something that doesn’t justify the time and energy invested.”

Emails don’t have to contain ground-breaking material, they just have to tap into our need for distraction and delight.

Tapping into Dopamine With Your Emails

Dopamine, the chemical that was once thought to flood our brains during a pleasurable experience, actually makes us curious about ideas and fuels our search for information. Emails that trigger this instinctive quest for more and better information can only perform better.

Current research shows that dopamine causes seeking behavior, meaning it makes you “want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases your general level of arousal and your goal-directed behavior.”

Consider this when designing your next email: how can you create a goal in your subject line and then reward the searching behavior in either your email content or after a click? This kind of dopamine loop is what will cement long-term engagement in your subscribers.

Dr. Susan Weinschenk puts it this way on Psychology Today:

Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cell phone to see if you have a message or a new text…Our emails and twitters and texts show up, but you don’t know exactly when they will, or who they will be from. It’s unpredictable. This is exactly what stimulates the dopamine system.

Even more interesting is her assertion that “the dopamine system is most powerfully stimulated when the information coming in is small so that it doesn’t fully satisfy.”

This is a great insight for email marketers because it reminds us that the anticipation of achieving something is typically more powerful than the achievement itself. Our emails, if designed correctly, can satisfy our subscribers but also leave them eagerly looking forward to our next campaign.

The Unique Addictive Pull of Email

Email isn’t like regular mail, which we’ve been conditioned to expect to be almost completely transactional. Sure there are emails about our purchases and accounts, but there are also real people reaching out to us.

Every time we check our email there’s the possibility, however slim, that our significant other is sending us an unexpected love note, an amazing job offer is waiting, or our children’s teachers are raving about their test scores.

Email, or at least non-marketing emails, are ongoing conversations.

We’re genuinely invested in those relationships and we want to make sure we’re not missing an opportunity to connect by not checking our email. The constant pinging of our inbox also makes us feel like we’re important and needed within our network.

Checking email itself is also a powerful activity because as we saw from research on dopamine and seeking behavior, it triggers addictive chemicals and behaviors in our brains.

Email marketing, therefore, exists at a very strong intersection of personal and psychological pulls that email marketers can use to their advantage. But it’s important to remember that we are appearing in inboxes alongside highly personal emails and that we should treat that placement carefully.

Campaigns that are overly exploitative or inappropriate can backfire spectacularly, just as those that are thoughtfully designed can be wildly successful.

Can You Create Addictive Email Campaigns?

Keeping all of these factors in mind, can you create email campaigns that are eagerly anticipated by your subscribers?

Will they look forward to seeking out the information that your emails promise, and then look forward to the next time they see your “From” address in their inbox?

Can you compete with the job offers, love notes, and teacher praise that people are actually hoping to find when they check their email?

These are challenging questions, but if you take the time to craft truly personalized campaigns that meet your subscribers’ needs as individuals, you’ll be off to a very strong start.