The Zeigarnik Effect, and Why You Need to …

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

In the 1920s, Russian psychologist Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik did research on an interesting topic: Why did waiters in a restaurant easily remember the orders of patrons, but 20 minutes later had no recollection at all?

Her research showed that the human mind hates unfinished tasks. As long as a task is unfinished, the brain is in effect in an uncomfortable position, and thoughts of the task serve to remind the brain of what it needs to do to get comfortable once again. Once the task is complete, however, and the brain has become comfortable, it no longer needs to retain thoughts of the task.

Similarly, if you are in the middle of doing something unimportant, such as sorting pens, and you get called to do an important task, you might find yourself saying, “I’ll be finished this in five minutes, and then I’ll get right to that.” The Zeigarnik effect is the reason you cannot bear the thought of leaving this unimportant task only partially complete, even though a much more important job awaits.

And what does this have to do with e-mail marketing?

The Zeigarnik effect is what made you read past the headline of this article and past the subject lines of most e-mails. When you have a subject line that finishes with a period, you are basically encouraging the recipient’s mind to think of the message as a completed task. But without the end punctuation, the subject line is perceived as unfinished, and the brain will not be happy with the idea of moving on without finishing the sentence.

Bear in mind that your subject line and the headline within the message itself have a single goal: to get the e-mail clicked on and read. With the sheer amount of e-mails we get each day, your e-mail needs to compete with the many others for attention.

Giving away too much information in a subject line or a headline can work against you; if your reader already knows about a new industry technology and you mention it in the headline, the e-mail stands a lesser chance of being read. Even though you might be providing valuable information on the subject that he does not know, his brain has already decided that this is not worth his time.

The Zeigarnik effect is also behind the success of closing terminology such as “make sure you read tomorrow’s newsletter for part two of this series on how to use the latest technology to make your customers smile.” It creates the effect of letting your readers know that they are not yet “done” and that your next e-mail will contain more information that they need. It sets them up to anticipate what else you have to say.

Issamar Ginzberg is an entrepreneur and a marketing expert specializing in small business.

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