Art Meets Science: Your (Customer’s) Brain on Email


Scientists have been conducting research for years to understand and unlock the secrets of the human mind. Now, many of their findings can be studies and applied to email marketing. A recent guide on the psychology of email marketing has brought to light new and interesting applications of science in connecting with your customers.

Here are six fascinating brain science facts every email marketer should know, complete with real examples of how today’s leading brands are using science to achieve better results in the inbox.

Science fact #1: The Zeigarnik Effect (Don’t give them all the goods right away)

The Zeigarnik Effect states that people tend to remember and focus on uncompleted tasks more than completed ones. Dr. Zeigarnik learned this after noticing that waiters could remember many details about customers’ open tabs, but hardly anything about tabs that had been paid and closed.

Email marketers’ tip: How to capitalize on the Zeigarnik Effect

Intentionally design your email creative so it looks unfinished or requires one more step for readers. Consider using subject line copy that teases the content or other approaches that lead to higher engagement and purchases.

For example, Fairlease created an in-email poll that asked recipients to cast a vote to show how they feel about vehicle mileage, the most important attributes in choosing a car, and more. Yet it also encouraged them to click to a landing page to see how their results stacked up against all other feedback. Recipients couldn’t resist!

Science fact #2: The amygdala (Light up the lizard brain)

We all have an amygdala, that “lizard brain” that is responsible for our gut reactions and our most basic fight-or-flight instincts. The amygdala works much faster than our conscious mind by making snap decisions in three seconds or less.

Email marketers’ tip: How to capitalize on the amygdala

When it comes to email design (or any design), the amygdala is drawn to images of food, danger, or anything visually stunning that simply can’t be overlooked. To appeal to your reader’s amygdala, develop email creative that may immediately catch the attention of their inner lizard.

When it comes to email design, the amygdala is drawn to visceral images of food, danger, and so on. To appeal to your audience’s amygdala, develop email creative that may immediately catch their attention and quickly speak to their inner lizard.

For example, Chuck E. Cheese recently created an email that displayed mouth-watering varieties of chicken wings–hard for any lizard to resist. This email actually gets extra credit for also using the Zeigarnik Effect by including a poll to get recipients to click to learn more and increase engagement.

Science fact #3: the Noble Edge Effect (Do good things and your audience will return the favor)

Research shows that consumers believe that products of “caring” companies are superior. In fact, 53% of consumers report that they would pay 10% more for products from socially responsible companies.

Email marketers’ tip: How to capitalize on the Noble Edge Effect

The catch? The Noble Edge Effect only works when those efforts feel sincere. Today’s consumers are savvier than ever, so it’s important that you give back in a way that is meaningful and aligns with the values of your brand.

For example, consider the example of TOMS and their “buy one and we’ll donate one” mantra. This does wonders for their brand perception—and their bottom line.

Science fact #4: nostalgia (Connect the past with the present)

Nostalgia is a powerful, powerful emotion. We all love to look back at old photos and videos and relive the glory days.

But did you know that nostalgia actually impacts how our brains make purchasing decisions? Recent studies have shown that positive feelings created by nostalgia can actually make a person more likely to buy a product or service.

Email marketers’ tip: How to capitalize on nostalgia

The Harlem Globetrotters use nostalgia as a powerful edge by sending emails that include video to attract new generations of fans to its timeless events. A live embedded streaming video shows openers how their experience seamlessly joins the old with the new to provide something for people of all ages.

Science fact #5: The Von Restorff Effect (The stranger, the better)

The Von Restorff Effective boils down to one thought: “If it looks strange, we’ll probably remember it.”

The Von Restorff Effect is probably the most obvious cognitive behavior in this article, but it’s also one of the most effective. It explains why something that stands out immediately becomes memorable—and more likely to be taken advantage of.

Email marketers’ tip: How to capitalize on the Von Restorff Effect

To use the Von Restorff Effect, consider using images your audience may not expect (yet still in a way that supports your creative). You can also include big, bright call-to-action buttons, not just standard blue hyperlinks.

Busch Gardens used the Von Restorff Effect to an extreme degree. It created a scary skull image to promote a Halloween event, but also animated with a scratch-to-reveal feature daring recipients to click for more information (and a possible scare). Who could resist!

Science fact #6: The social default bias (We’re all copycats)

Social default bias says that when we’re having trouble picking between competing products, we’re more likely to pick the tone that others have chosen. The only catch: we don’t want others to see us do it for fear of being seen as a follower.

This is why we’ll order something we’ve seen someone across a restaurant order, but hesitate if someone at our own table has ordered it first.

Email marketers’ tip: The Social Default Bias

When creating emails, user-generated content and social proof are extremely powerful marketing tools, especially when paired with email. Think of it this way: your inbox is usually a private place, so when you see it flooded with pictures or quotes from real customers using a particular product, you feel that it’s already been researched. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for you, and the path to purchase becomes that much easier.

For example, Yotel created an email that used a grid view to display user content from its customers’ Instagrams posts. All of which gave provided even more good ideas that any copycat could steal from their own getaway or event.

Blind ‘em with science!

Interested in learning more? Download the complete guide on email marketing psychology, “Your Brain on Email: The Science to Winning the Inbox,” today!


Liveclicker enables personalization at the moment of open. Our platform helps marketers adjust emails at any time—even after they reach the inbox—so your message is always relevant and impactful.


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