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Email Best Practices

Inbox out: Pixar-inspired emotions that power marketing

Inspired by Pixar’s upcoming animated film Inside Out, we’re diving into the mind of the average consumer for a tour of their emotions from the inbox out.

Hermes writing in front of laptop



We all carry around a box of emotions. It sits patiently in a server somewhere with dozens of messages waiting to be answered. An overdue bill, 50% off clearance sale, pending friend request - you’ve got mail.


Inspired by Pixar’s upcoming animated film Inside Out, we’re venturing into the mind of the average consumer (that’s you and me!) for a tour of their emotions from the inbox out. For decades, social psychologists have acknowledged that there are six basic emotions that imagery--including marketing--can evoke in people. It’s no coincidence that these emotions are more or less the main emotional characters in the film. This got us thinking: what are some other emotions frequently experienced as a result of marketing and what would they look like? We consulted Professor Sudio Sudarsan of Hult International Business School to explore 5 new “cousins” in the emotional family: Curiosity, Nostalgia, Boredom, Annoyance and Astonishment.

The sun’s just rising. Fresh mind and coffee in hand, Curiosity comes to the forefront as you first open your inbox. Waiting are events that have developed the night before. Each new subject line is an opportunity to discover a new product, to learn or to change up your current routine.

In an increasingly noisy digital world, Curiosity is one of the most powerful tools for a marketer. “Curiosity is a primal human emotion, a holy dopaminergic craving… an eccentric mental itch.” says Professor Sudarsan. “Literature in psychology has shown that curiosity is an expresso shot of intrinsic motivation… to explore, learn or create. At a social level, curiosity suffuses passion and energy to fortify interpersonal relationships and to enhance social interactions.”

Let’s take a look at this email from 5by. The subject line reads “If you watch one video this weekend, make it this one”, with follow-up copy in the header that says “This might be the best magic you’ve ever seen” and “Your move, David Blaine”. Each line of copy is carefully layered to drive hype and suspense. 5by serves just enough information to whet the consumer’s palate and inform them that there’s a magic trick involved, while reserving just enough to drive the recipient to click through.

“You’ve Got Mail!”, your computer belts as you’re browsing the web. The AOL inspired Google Chrome add-on has been making the news lately, because who doesn’t love a little walk down memory lane? Since millennials now account for 21 - 25% of consumer purchases, 90’s references have been increasingly prevalent in the consumer scene.

Professor Sudarsan says, “Nostalgia is a compound of two Greek terms: nostos (returning home) and algos (pain due to yearning); coined by a Swiss medical doctor at the end of 17th century referencing Swiss mercenary soldiers. Recent studies elucidate how nostalgia dynamically functions as a catalyst to restore positive affect and feelings of affiliation, amplifying explicit self-esteem, and in some cases enhances creativity.”

Additional research shows that these feelings make people value money less, causing them to spend more. This warm and fuzzy feeling is especially powerful because it’s easy to pinpoint and personalize. Each generation has very specific pop culture references. In fact, through social media, it’s even easier to nail down the ebb and flow of trends.

UK based vintage furniture and hardware store Rose & Grey, sent an email for Mother’s Day with an image of a faded family photograph. Not only is the old school photograph on brand, it also hits home, with reasons to be thankful for mom. Nostalgia is incredibly powerful here, because how can you put a price tag on family memories?

50 new emails later, your inbox is saturated with subject lines like “Just for You!”, “ Don’t miss out…” or “Surprise!”. Should you claim the buy one get one free or the 30% off $150 offer? Too many choices can be overwhelming.

Opposite to Nostalgia, Boredom results from lack of novelty. As a marketer, it’s important to be selective in choosing which trends to follow. Research shows that too much choice can actually lead people to take less positive risks.

“The hurly-burly boredom encountered every day is both anaffective and a volitional state that thwarts desire, kills motivation, and disrupts free will all at the same time that it is often described as a plague of the postmodern world. Its prevalence [is] estimated between 20% and 50% of population…” explains Professor Sudarsan.

Avoiding Boredom is a delicate balance of delivering content and design that the consumer knows how to engage with, but is unique enough that it plays on other emotions such as Curiosity.

“Ugh! Three emails in one day? And I have no use for this product. Why are they messaging me?” Buried in an inbox of unread emails, most of which you can’t relate to, Boredom’s older sibling Annoyance kicks in.

Professor Sudarsan comments that “Previous neurophysiological studies of emotion inform that annoyance as an emotional valence can occur due to one’s own failure... toward specific, provoking environmental situation. Given its pervasive occurrence in our everyday lives, annoyance is a unique breed in the emotion kingdom that we could be annoyed at ourselves without any other transactional participation given the various aspects of our own physical, mental, or emotional condition.”

To cut through the inbox, email marketers often test new strategies to catch consumers attentionbut unfortunately, they don’t always succeed. Always base your tests upon customer data - segment by interest, by age or by engagement behavior. Carefully build in feedback loops to listen to which types of content and delivery consumers are most responsive to. A/B test (or A/X test) to build subject lines, content and sender name off quantitative data to build subject lines, content and sender name off quantitative data.

At the end of the day, even the best email marketers will encounter Annoyance from time to time. It’s important not to let that daunt you. Just keep moving along looking for Curiosity, Nostalgia and Astonishment.

The funny one of the bunch, Astonishment can be both positive or negative. It’s the hardest of the pack to draw out and possibly the most challenging one to control. It can make an appearance when the content is not as promised in the subject line - either it offers a lot more than the consumer anticipated or was entirely misleading.

Professor Sudarsan concludes by saying “Since emotional intensity is greater in response to unanticipated events than to anticipated events, astonishment as an emotion can be a delight with a hint of panic and a neurological puff of steam… Astonishment takes the emotional crown even without clear-cut valence, as one of the most intense and cognitively demanding emotions solely due to the abrupt overpowering magnitude of amazement.”

There’s no right way to make a consumer feel when he opens the inbox. The five emotions that power marketing work together, fight against each other - they almost always appear together. The goal at the end of the day is to build a brand experience that goes from the inbox out, that the consumer continues to hold and engage with. One that moves to long-term memory.


Sudio is a recognized human behaviorist and brand strategist from New York, NY. He helps organizations drive demand and impact through more effective use of their brand, marketing, design, and innovation assets.

He teaches advanced MBA courses in marketing and strategy at premier business schools across three continents around the world. At the confluence of neurobiology, cultural anthropology and cognitive psychology, he approaches his research work on consumer behavior. Presently, he is converting his eight-year research into an accessible book. You can follow him @iSudio on Twitter or Tumblr.

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