Why Emails Can Turn You Off: A Behavioral Expert’s View

NancyHarhut_Silly_HiRes_copy.jpgBy Diane Streleckis - Emails are the workhorses of marketing. Statista estimated that more than 347 billion emails were sent every day in 2022—and that number has only increased. Meanwhile, HubSpot research found that most marketers reported an average email open rate of 46-50% and average email clickthrough rate of 2.6-3%.

That means about half of the emails marketers send end up unread, with more than 90% end up unclicked. What’s going on here?

Award-winning marketing consultant and author Nancy Harhut answered three questions on which behavioral traits have people passing on those emails communication professionals spend so much time, thought, and effort crafting.

What email technique has you hit the delete button fastest?

Something I call “Faux Familiarity”. When I get an email that pretends to know me, but clearly does not, because it references an industry I’m not in, a social media channel I don’t use, or an activity I never do, I will pretty speedily hit delete. For email to work well, it needs to be relevant.

Are there any behavioral traits behind that gut response and if so, what are the most common ones?

I’d say it’s related to the idea of self-concept, which is the mental picture people have of who they are. When people feel that the product, service, or brand in the email reflects an aspect of their self-concept, they form a connection with that product, service, or brand. But if what the email is advertising has nothing to do with how they see themselves, then they are more likely to reject it.

Why do negative feelings/perceptions about an email sender linger long after we receive a delete-triggering email? What behavioral trait(s) apply here?

Behavioral scientists have identified a principle called Loss Aversion. They’ve found that people are twice as motivated to avoid the pain of loss as they are to achieve the pleasure of gain. When someone invests the time and energy to engage with an email only to find it’s not really relevant to them, that results in a loss. And humans are scientifically proven to feel losses twice as powerfully as gains, which could explain the lingering negative feelings.


Diane Streleckis is a writer and content strategist dedicated to using the power of words for good. Understanding what makes people tick and then sharing practical ideas to help support their needs and concerns is Diane’s mission. She’s applied this mission mindset across industries for more than 30 years.