Improving Email Campaign Performance with Nudge Theory

|by Amy Birch

Humans make thousands of decisions every day. What if you, as a marketer, could help with making a decision a bit easier?

That's where the nudge theory comes in.

Richard Thaler developed the nudge theory as a response to human behaviour. It's useful when trying to understand decision-making and how customer’s decisions can be influenced. 

The theory requires a deep understanding of human behaviour and decision-making criteria. 

Marketers also need to plan how they want their readers to react to stimuli in order to predict future actions. Email marketers can influence the behaviours of their readers with slight changes to their campaigns.

Keep reading to find out how.

What is the nudge theory?

Nudge theory states that you can influence people’s behaviours through subtle changes to your actions. The theory relies on an understanding of human nature, that humans aren't entirely rational beings and can be significantly influenced by their environment. Changing human behaviour in this way is a form of manipulation that should be considered carefully.

Nudges use gentle prompts rather than laws and directives to make changes. For example, placing a particular brand of product at an adult’s eye level in a supermarket encourages purchases. In a similar way, companies can also use their influence to discourage a particular action or behaviour.

However, to begin nudging people towards a decision, you need to develop an understanding of the decision-making process. Collecting data about the way your subscribers interact with your brand is the first part of the process.

People in power could abuse nudges as an opportunity to promote their own agendas and products. Yet, used in the right way, nudges can be used as a power for positive change.

How nudge theory can be applied to email marketing

Sending an email campaign to a recipient can act as a nudge for them to perform the desired action. The theory can be used to change any element of an email campaign, from the subject line to the call-to-action.

A subtle nudge with an email can be the motivation somebody needs to take action. Using customer insights, you can create campaigns to guide your readers. Implemented subtly, a campaign nudging the recipient towards an action would not be detected by the recipient.

The output of the theory can be used to personalise email marketing campaigns efforts to nudge individual users in an appropriate way.

To understand how the theory can help your email marketing efforts, follow these simple steps:

  • Develop an understanding of how people think, make decisions and behave.
  • Identify how you can use these insights to influence behaviours.
  • Create campaigns which nudge recipients towards an action or behaviour.
  • Strengthen your customer relations and brand direction.

Improving email campaign performance with nudge theory

Although mobile optimisation and mobile app downloads have become popular, it's important to understand whether your readers use mobile devices in the first place. 

If your statistics show that most of your email recipients open their emails on desktop, encouraging them to download a mobile app is likely to be unsuccessful. When using nudges, it's important to employ common sense to decide which nudges are likely to be effective.

Consider how you can change your CTAs to drive user engagement and click-through rates. Simply changing the placement or text of your CTA button is likely to influence recipient behaviour.

To see whether your email campaign messages are starting to take effect, you need to closely monitor your campaign results. If your emails are effectively nudging the recipients towards the desired action, you should start to see an increase in engagement with your email campaigns.

Use your experience and industry knowledge to identify areas where you can use your influence to change email recipient behaviour.  People are more likely to be influenced by a brand that they like due to the halo effect. According to the halo effect, your impression of a company or individual in one area can affect the way you perceive them in another. It doesn't matter whether the situations are in any way related as the power of the opinion overlooks the environment in which it was created.

Examples of brands using nudge theory

This example from below shows how a simple design can impact consumer behaviour using the nudge theory. On their pricing page, the copy ‘Most Popular’ above the 'Standard' block pushes the consumer to choose this pricing plan:

This social proof on is another example where simple copy is pushing the user to make a decision. Highlighted in red ‘In high demand – only 3 rooms left on our site!’, this nudge shows that other people are interested in the offer too:

In this example from Topshop, the subject line nudges us to open the campaign to see how indeed does Susie Bubble do Christmas. The subject line doesn’t explicitly tell us what to do, I.e. ‘open this email now’ but we’re given enough of a push in the right direction.


Nudge theory is useful for marketers who wish to influence their readers. However, marketers should be careful to ensure that they are using their influence to promote only a positive action or behaviour. 

Now that you are aware that nudge theory exists, see how many instances of the theory you can see in your daily life.

Nudge theory can enhance existing campaigns but don't expect it to revolutionise your performance instantly. Improving email campaign performance with nudge theory takes time to bear results and patience is required for success.

Want to level up your marketing? Check out Wired Plus.

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