Email Click Through Rates: Increase Them with This One Psychological Tactic

This post illuminates a subtle technique that you can use to increase your email click through rate.

How can we create an email that makes our customer more receptive to the call-to-action and therefore, more likely to click through?

Lessons Learned from Selling Wine

In 1999, three scientists decided to mess with the music in a wine store to find out if it would have an effect on consumers buying tendencies.

Over the course of two weeks, they played French and German music on alternate days from an in-store display that featured both French and German wines.

“Music with strong national associations should activate related knowledge and be linked with customers buying wine from the respective country.” (source)

This is a psychological effect called priming. Whatever is in a person’s recent memory effects how they behave when presented with something that’s related to those recent memories.

Priming is kind of like using pre-dug canals to direct the flow of water.

“Over time the flow of water creates a preferred path (the canal) and any water that flows along that canal will generally follow the path laid out. Minor variations at the start of the water flow (say, in the exact location of the source of the water) lead to the water taking slightly different paths down the river, but this variation is still structured by the form of the canal so that by the end, the water comes out at the same place.” (source)

So, does it work?

“French music led to French wines outselling German ones, whereas German music led to the opposite effect on sales of French wine.” (source)

The music essentially prepared the customers to buy a certain kind of wine, so that when the opportunity to buy wine arose, the customers were ready to take the plunge.

What’s more, the customers were not aware that the music was affecting their buying behavior. (source)

Marketing emails should function like a wine display that plays a certain kind of music.

The body of a good marketing email should be like the music of the wine display, and the call-to-action is the wine. When the customer reaches the call-to-action in an email, they should already be thinking about it.

How Do We Prime Our Customers?

For those of us engaging via email, music isn’t really an option. However, priming works through nearly all mediums.

A study by British researchers found that certain images made people more likely to voluntarily pay via an “honesty box” for drinks they consumed. They discovered this by changing the image that was placed above the honesty box each week for ten weeks.

When there was a picture of human eyes above the honesty box, people paid almost three times as much!

priming eyes study

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This doesn’t mean that we should be putting pictures of eyes in all of our marketing emails. But it does mean that there’s a very broad range of emotions that our marketing imagery can and should appeal to.

This goes beyond just building trust or establishing scarcity. In this example, using imagery that appeals to our customer’s social reputation is incredibly effective.

Another series of studies revealed that people identified words and pictures faster if they just seen a related word or picture. Participants recognized the word “banana” faster after being shown a picture of a plain yellow circle.

The priming effect also occurred for words and pictures that were antonyms, synonyms, or natural responses (such as being shown a question mark before being showed the word, “answer”).

To take advantage of this effect, our calls-to-action should be connected to all the elements within our marketing emails, from the copy to the color scheme. This also means that the go-to call-to-action of, “shop now” might not be making the most of our email real estate.

Bringing Priming from Retail to Email

Getting priming going in your emails is pretty easy, once you’re aware of what to do. A few simple changes can improve the quality of any marketing email you send.

  • Make your call-to-action more specific. If you can do it without making your call-to-action awkward, try using something especially related to your product or customer demographic. This email from Manpacks is a solid example of a call-to-action that is related to the product, and supported by copy that primes the customer for the call to action.
manpack call-to-action example

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  • Color associate your call-to-action. If you’re sending an offer email, make a graphic, or use text, that shows the offer in the same color as your clickable call-to-action.
blogging dot org pop up CTA

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  • Use imagery and a call-to-action that function together within the context of the email, not that just supports your brand. Coca-Cola pulled this off nicely a while back with their “Open Happiness” call-to-action supported by this imagery:
coca cola advertisement

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Here are a couple more examples of emails that use some clever tricks to prime their readers for their call-to-action.

This email from JCrew does an excellent job of working with words to make their call to action the clear choice in the matter.

JCrew Gift Card Email

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Notice the repetition of “gift card,” in the body text and in the call-to-action. Also, including the word “two” in their copy primes the customer for the second option, labeled with “2.”

For JCrew, the most immediate conversion is an online sale, so the language of the email supports that buying option, and the relevant words appear in both the copy and the clickable call-to-action.

This is simple associative matching, “gift card” to “gift card” and “two” to “2.”

Color association also works, and can be a great way to simplify your call-to-action, especially when making a special offer. This email from Legion demonstrates a great way to connect your color scheme to your call-to-action.

legion 10 percent off email

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Yes, the call-to-action is, “shop now,” but it makes sense in this context because, “get 10% off” is a bit clunky.

However, making the 10% off offer and the clickable call-to-action the same color is a great way to use association to say, “get 10% off” in your call to action without being awkward.

Performing A/B testing on priming techniques isn’t too difficult. Based on the thousands of marketing emails I’ve received, a great place to start with your A/B testing is your call-to-action.

Even though it’s old and tired, I still get emails every day that end with a “shop now” button. This means that, at the very least, using a more creative call-to-action sets your emails apart from the rest.

The first test is simple.

Take your current call-to-action, and make it more specific, linked to the email content, and see what kind of improvement you can get over your standard call-to-action.

Think of how your call-to-action can be an integral part of your marketing strategy, and brand representation, not just obedience to the rules of marketing.

Huemor uses a call-to-action that is expertly supported by the imagery, and does away with the traditional call-to-action.

huemor cta

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Once you’ve A/B tested your way to a better call-to-action, try tweaking the copy, colors, and imagery of your emails to support your new call-to-action, and A/B test those changes one at a time.


Priming is a micro-level tactic, a fine-tuning technique that’ll help you provide incremental improvements. Even if you’re making the right moves with cart abandonment emails, triggered emails, and so on, the devil is in the details.

A good marketing email should be a cohesive system that prepares the customer to click-through on the call-to-action, and get them back into the buying process.

What to Do Next

  1. Take these tactics and use them to visualize emails as a system that drives attention to the call-to-action for more click-throughs.
  2. Schedule a free strategy session and explore how the Rejoiner team will help you A/B test your email campaigns.