Psychology of Why People Open Emails

Ever wondered why people open emails? Between work emails, retailer subscriptions, and newsletters, your subscribers’ inboxes are certainly not lacking in content to read.

What makes someone click open on your content, in particular?

Lots has been written and discussed about this. There’s the time of day, subject line tricks, and even best practices for your preview text. But one thing I haven’t seen covered is the psychology around email opens.

We know roughly why people share content, but why do they open emails?

I did the research. What I found may make you chuckle.

When People Open Emails

Research shows that most people read their emails during the work day between the hours of 8 am and 10 am, and then again during the hours of 3pm and 4pm.

Email open rates show a slight uptick between 8pm and 10pm.

When you think about someone’s typical workday, these trends shouldn’t surprise you at all. People go to work, and what’s usually the first thing they do? They open their email.

By 5pm or 6pm they are commuting home, then getting dinner ready, then bathing the kids and putting them to bed (I don’t know how parents get it all done!). But later in the evening they may go back online to finish more work and check email again. Hence, open rates pick up slightly again at 8pm and 10pm.

But with all this email checking, which certainly includes a little bit of checking of retailer’s emails and Groupons, one has to wonder: are we working hard or hardly working?

Procrastination

At its core, procrastination is about creating a comfort zone and avoiding pain.

Think about something that you’ve been avoiding. Really, really think about it, and concentrate on the feeling it conjures up. It’s likely that thinking about doing that task feels unpleasant. That’s why you avoid it.

This scrapes the surface of why people are looking to do something other than real work, and what purpose email serves in people’s lives.

Distraction and Anxiety

Dr. Larry Rosen is a professor of psychology at California State University. He has spent a ton of time studying our use of technology.

One of his recent pieces of research looked at social media use among more than 1,000 people from four different generations. He found that, especially among young people, chronic checking of social media sites was driven either by anxiety or pleasure. But, more often than not (the ratio, he says, was about 3:1) it was driven by anxiety.

In Psychology Today, Dr. Rosen writes:

“I think that what is driving our behavior of constantly checking in with our technology regardless of whether we have received an alert or notification—an external interruption—or we are musing about missing out on something in our virtual social world—an internal interruption—is akin to an obsession or compulsion, both of which are anxiety-driven issues.  We have not sunk to the level of a psychiatric disorder like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder but we are not far away. Just watch people in the world around you. If you are watching a young person who is not looking at his or her phone keep watching. Soon that phone will come out of the pocket or purse, most likely without having gotten an alert or notification but being driven by a combination of pleasure and anxiety.”

Clicking for fun or compulsion?

In related research, Dr. Rosen looked specifically at the social media usage among teens. Rosen and his team observed nearly 300 middle school, high school and university students studying something important for 15 minutes in their natural environments. They were interested in finding out whether the students could maintain focus and, if not, what might be distracting them. The researchers noted exactly what the students were doing, if they were texting, if they were checking Facebook, etc.

The results: The students were only able to concentrate on average for three minute spurts.

When asked about why they veered off task, students explained that whenever they got an alert from a beep, a vibration or a flashing image, they feel compelled or drawn to attend to that distraction. The things they wondered:

  • “I wonder if anyone commented on my Facebook post.”
  • “I wonder if anyone responded to my text message I sent 5 minutes ago.”
  • “I wonder what interesting new YouTube videos my friends have liked.”

So, basically, we check email and social media to procrastinate. And, we check these things constantly because we’re anxious to find out what’s on the other side of that click.

And then, to take that a step further… the anxiety we seek to soothe through chronic social media checking seems similar to another aspect of psychology that’s frequently used in marketing – curiosity.

Curiosity

We’ve covered curiosity a little bit here before, but it’s worth reviewing some theories on the topic.

The Information Gap
George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon offers one of the leading theories on the topic, known as the “information-gap” theory. Through this theory, he believes that curiosity proceeds in two basic steps:

  1. A situation reveals a painful gap in our knowledge (a new email)
  2. We feel an urge to fill this gap and ease that pain (open the email)

Curious individuals seek to obtain that missing information to eliminate that feeling of deprivation. If this is true, then curiosity isn’t much different than other human needs like hunger. It’s deeply troubling at the onset (hangry!), but its relief is very satisfying (yum!)

This helps explain, at the end of the day, why we click.

Making Your Emails Useful In Light of This Data

So, we open emails because we’re procrastinating, we’re distracted, we’re anxious, and we’re curious.

Bleak picture, much? Sounds like it at first blush.

But, there’s a way to keep these things in mind when creating your emails to make them most useful to your audience.

1. Be entertaining – Sometimes people genuinely are looking for a break when they go to their inbox. Sending email content that is particularly funny, beautiful, or thought-provoking can be a nice break up from the monotony  of the work day.

2. Be efficient – Help people stay focused by giving them quick ways to take action with your emails. Consider, for example, the magic of Amazon’s shipping confirmation emails. They have one clear call to action (track your package). With just one click, they allow you to get into the website, do that, get out, and get back to work.

amazon-email-example-3

Marketing doesn’t have to be manipulative. Having research like and knowing why people do the things they do can actually help you provide more engaging and helpful stuff to your subscribers.

Do you have any thoughts to share about this research? Why do YOU open your emails? Let us know in the comments.

 

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1 comment

  • Great article! As an agency that specializes in email marketing management, it is refreshing to read an article that actually discusses new strategy and offers business insight rather than the same marketing rhetoric that has been floating around since “we got mail.” Thanks!

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