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How email marketers tap into modern mindlessness

Most articles about how email affects our brains focus on rising stress levels and a decline in productivity, not to mention basic manners at meetings. We all know that mindlessly picking up our phones or tabbing over to Gmail at our desks to check our inboxes is a habit that's hard to break.

The word "mindlessly" is important here, especially when you think about how email marketing continues to bring in more returns than any other direct marketing channel. We're subconsciously attracted to our inboxes. Here are three ways smart marketers are tapping into primitive brain behaviors to get results even when attention spans are dwindling.

1. They appeal to gut reactions.

Buried in a primitive part of your temporal lobe called the amygdala, there are almond-shaped neurons that process decisions. And they work fast. In caveman times, these neurons made life and death decisions (Will this sabertooth tiger eat me?), and they're still at work in all the less scary decisions we make in modern times. (Do I want that double cheeseburger?). Gut reactions happen in three seconds or less, and marketers have about that long to get subscribers to open their emails.

With only a few tools in their amygdala arsenal -- from name, subject line and preheader text -- email marketers have to eliminate fear and be enticing. Take a look at some of the recent subject lines in my own inbox that promise value, ask a compelling question or suggest urgent action to pique my interest in just a few seconds.

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Or take this subject line from southern lifestyle magazine and Emma customer Garden & Gun: "A Mississippi Roadside Marvel." This subject line is great because it says you're going to see something awesome, but it doesn't give away all the goods. It forces you to open and see for yourself. And in case you're wondering, it worked. The mailing went to 60,000 contacts, and the open rate was nearly 40 percent!

2. They make sticky memories.

Cavemen drew on their cave walls to tell stories and communicate important information. Now we think of that medium as primitive, but maybe prehistoric storytellers were on to something. Our brains process images 60,000 times faster than text, and 90 percent of all data people process is visual. That's why email marketers who use more images than text see more success in the form of clicks.

HTML emails that incorporate images aren't just nice-looking. They make the accompanying text more memorable. Which is good, because no one is actually reading marketing emails anymore. A quick -- often mindless -- scan is all anyone can expect, so smart marketers take time to find images that convey their message, and then make economical choices for headlines, calls to action and captions.

3. They get emotional.

Back when our ancestors had to rely on their amygdala to escape sabertooth tigers, they used that same part of their brain to make positive connections with other humans. We're still hard-wired to connect with images of faces, which can grab attention, build trust and light up emotion receptors -- even when you're viewing these faces in your inbox.

The part of the brain that processes images sits right next to the part of the brain that processes emotions, and faces have a unique way of conveying emotion without making us think too hard about what's happening. So using images of people in your email marketing is pretty powerful stuff, which is why you'll often see a happy model with eyes turned toward promotional text or the button a marketer wants you to click.

These tactics may come off as manipulative, but I like to think of them as meeting your audience where they are. People are busy, their undivided attention is virtually nonexistent, and they appreciate when brands can convey value and action quickly and effectively. Even if it does play to our collective mindlessness.