The Consumer Email Habit Loop

The Consumer Email Habit Loop
by Kara Trivunovic, Monday, June 24, 2013

I recently started reading “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” by Charles Duhigg. Going in, I wanted to tap the information about the habits of successful organizations, but as it turns out, I’ve found myself absolutely intrigued by the science behind the development (and re-development) of habits in individuals.

A major theme of the book focuses on the idea of a three-step habit loop that turns our everyday behaviors into auto-pilot habits. I’ll argue that email marketers have created a similar three-step email habit loop with consumers and subscribers. But are we using the habit loop effectively, to bring marketers the results we want?

The three stages of the habit loop are

  1. cue,
  2. routine and
  3. reward.

The cue is what triggers the behavior; the routine is the physical, emotional or mental action that is taken as a result of the cue/trigger; and the reward is… well, the reward for completing the routine. In addition, there is one critical element that writes this loop to the brain, emblazoning it as a habit: the craving.

You can find this psychology embedded somewhere in just about every good and lasting marketing campaign. As marketers, we create the cue, incent the routine and provide the reward – with the goal of instilling that craving that compels the consumer to complete the habit loop again.

Armed with this knowledge, how can you use it deliberately to strengthen your email marketing programs? Let’s start with where most marketers are today. The cue occurs when subscribers get their email (could be the blinking of a light on the phone, a vibration or a noise, even a time of day). The routine is for them to check that email, and the reward (hopefully) is to receive a relevant and timely discount or sale from the brand(s) they love. The question remains, though: Have you successfully created anticipation and craving for more?


In addition to the simple receipt of the email, marketers can further enhance cues with “from” names and compelling subject lines. There’s probably some optimal combination of “from” name, subject line, brand perception and timing that creates the optimal cues for the customer and drives the routine.

But what you think is the right cue may not be. Duhigg uses Febreze® air freshener and odor eliminator as an example. Initially, researchers felt the right cue would be the bad smells that occur for certain consumers, like pet owners, park rangers, and parents with teenagers. But they found this cue to be unsuccessful. Ironically, the people who most needed to eradicate strong odors had grown so accustomed to them that they didn’t recognize that they had a problem! Instead, the successful cue was the simple act of vacuuming. Look at the cues you are using for your programs carefully, and validate that they are, in fact, the cues that will drive your success.


As an email marketer, you likely want to accomplish one of these routines in your habit loop: repeatable site traffic, open and/or click on your email content, and/or conversion or completion of the desired task. To drive the routine, you may need to encourage or nudge the customer in the proper direction the first few times. Febreze gave households free samples and suggested spraying a room when the vacuuming was complete. It doesn’t hurt to actually tell the customer what it is you are asking of them.


What rewards are you offering your customers? Discounts, sales, coupons, insight, information? The reward must be worthwhile and of value to the customer — but that doesn’t mean it always has to be monetary. Febreze completed its habit loop with a reward of the fresh smell of a clean room as the test participants walked out of the rooms. A fresh scent (and a sense of accomplishment) was all it took to drive Febreze’s success — which continues today.

If you apply the habit loop framework to common activities in your life, you’ll find it easy to begin dissecting the concept and identifying how applicable it really is? For example, is Facebook the first page you look at when you pop open your browser? These are the types of habits we should be striving to drive with the email programs we send — so much so that the consumer anticipates the message from your brand and craves the reward that you provide. If you don’t believe your programs are driving to an effective habit loop, now is as good a time as any to start working toward it.

But the reality is that marketers have their own email habit loop. I’ll explore this with you in my next post. Meanwhile, I encourage you to start exploring your cues and rewards. And as you do, ask yourself the critical question: “Is my email habit-forming?”
Post your response to the public Email Insider blog.

See what others are saying on the Email Insider blog.

Kara Trivunovic is Vice President of Strategic Services for BlueHornet, an enterprise email service provider.
Email Insider for Monday, June 24, 2013:

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