2 Methods for Getting an Email Opened and 1 That Doesn’t Work

In my last column, I spoke about using the wiring of your consumers’ brains to get their attention. I also noted that it’s not enough to get attention; you also have to drive action. And when we’re talking about subject lines, that action is an email open. Here are two methods that are particularly effective at accomplishing this objective – and one that isn’t.

Method 1: Highlight the Potential Loss of Not Opening (Loss Aversion)

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman demonstrated people’s strong preference to avoiding loss rather than seeking gains. This simple insight earned Kahneman the Nobel Prize in 2002.

An important feature of loss aversion is phrasing. For example, you’re purchasing a computer monitor: would you rather get a $15 discount on the monitor, or avoid a $15 fee? Loss aversion tells us you would rather avoid the fee, even though both are economically equal.

You can leverage loss aversion by rephrasing your subject lines to highlight a loss that will occur if the recipient doesn’t take action. For example, “$10 off this week” becomes “Save $10 before Friday,” or, in an extreme case, “You lose $10 on Friday.”

As with anything, a respectful approach should be used. Putting statements like “You lose…” in subject lines is a tactic to be used sparingly, and only where appropriate. Did the recipient receive the discount for a certain action they took? If so, mentioning that it’s about to go away is acceptable. On the other hand, if it’s just a random discount, a direct statement of loss may frustrate your recipients.

Bottom line: using loss aversion to get opens should be subtle and relevant to the recipient and the email’s content. If you come on too strong, you risk ruining the long-term relationship.

Method 2: Use a Name (the Cocktail Party Effect)

Déjà vu? The use of a name is not only effective for grabbing someone’s attention from the other emails filling the inbox, it can also be used to get an open.

The first part of the “cocktail party effect” is the sudden reallocation of attention when an emotionally salient word, especially the person’s name, is spoken or written.

But once you’ve got attention, you can still leverage the name and people’s inherent self-interest to drive an open. For example, ThinkGeek recently sent me an email with the subject line “ThinkGeek finds Justin charming.” First, it got my attention by using my name. Then, once I read the subject line, I felt immediately curious to know why a geeky retailer found me charming. I opened…wouldn’t you if that was your name?

This method requires creativity. It’s not enough to write “NAME, here’s a 10% coupon.” There’s no reason for the name to be there. A more effective subject line might be “Hey NAME, we clipped this for you.”

As before, this strategy should not be abused. It only takes a few emails with subject lines like “Help me NAME” or “NAME’s personalized newsletter” to cause subscribers to leave.

Method 3: Use Humor (Note: This Method Doesn’t Always Work)

A common misconception bordering on cliché is that humor somehow makes advertising, marketing, and even education more effective. While it’s easy for most people to rationalize why that might be (e.g., I pay more attention when it’s funny), no conclusive evidence has come out linking humor to increased behavior or retention, despite numerous studies.

My point here is not to downplay the use of humor in marketing. I believe appropriate, synergistic humor helps define a brand and keep people engaged. But I believe it is overused, and the fact that its use in driving action is not as effective as many marketers have grown to believe should cause you to think twice about using humor as a crutch.

Instead, mix things up. Try highlighting a potential loss, an intriguing question, or just stating plainly what the email will do for the person should they choose to open.

These methods tap into inherent desires and fears to cause action. Use them wisely and you’ll see more people reading that email you worked so hard on.

Email image on home page via Shutterstock.

Editor’s Note: As 2013 comes to a close, we’re pleased to share our top email columns of the year. This article was originally published February 7, 2013.

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