Mind Games: Using Psychology to Increase Email Open Rates

We’ve all experienced that seemingly endless barrage of emails in our inbox with catchy subject lines promising myriad wonderful opportunities from cheap and exotic vacations to deep discounts on must-have products to offers for reversing hair loss and improving your love life. But of course a vast majority of recipients take the logical course and delete the sometimes alluring but often ridiculous missives without a moment’s hesitation, recognizing them for the waste of time and potentially malicious intent they hold.


However, in the world of non-profits, such emails serve as a vital form of communication, relating everything from desperate appeals for monetary support to a call for volunteerism to a need to simply be noticed for the good work they’re doing and the difference they’re trying to make in the world.

So how does an organization get people to open their emails rather than instantly relegate them to the virtual trash bin? In a word: psychology. By leveraging the innate processes of the human mind, it’s possible to greatly increase the odds that a recipient will click on your message and show interest in your group’s potential, whether it’s changing the world or just making a small piece of it a little better. Consider these four tricks for increasing email open rates by tapping into the inner psyche we all possess.

  • Put the recipient first by making sure the email subject line is about them, not about your organization. So whether you’re having an event or asking them to give you time, talent or money, offer some sort of value for their support. This promotes validation that they’re making a difference because they feel good about their efforts.
  • Subscribers to your emails are much more likely to open and read your messages if they’ve recently interacted with your organization during an event or given you money. So be sure you send them an email as soon as possible after said event or donation, as it fuels the previous interaction and allows them to get accustomed to opening your messages on a regular basis.
  • Research by non-profit experts utilizing the tools of psychology shows that people are much more likely to open an email if they recognize the sender. So use a person’s name in the subject line—someone who holds a place of prominence in your organization and whose name has been in the public realm previously—for recognition.
  • Cognitive dissonance—a state of conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors—has been shown to increase open rates. Essentially, by asking a person a question in the subject line of a message you’re forcing them to open the full email and read in an effort to arrive at an answer. So insert a query in the header and see if doing so increases open rates.

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