Maslow's Hierarchy Of Needs: Email Edition

Abraham Maslow’s 1943 paper “A Theory of Motivation,” originally published in Psychological Review, shared his theory of human psychological growth in humans, called the “hierarchy of needs.”  He says that to move up in the hierarchy of psychological development, one must have more basic needs met before progressing to the next level in the hierarchy, which is illustrated by a pyramid diagram.

This pyramid view is often cited in marketing courses because it outlines human psychological needs that marketers should keep in mind as they develop strategies across the four Ps of marketing: product, placement, pricing, and promotion.  

As a poorly recovering academic (I’ve moonlighted as an adjunct marketing professor for several years), I’ve enjoyed the thought of how Maslow’s pyramid applies to email marketing. Let’s examine how Maslow’s brilliant pyramid can help us be more strategic by looking at the five needs and how I think of them for our industry:



1.    Physiological needs: These are the critical requirements for survival like food, water, and shelter.

Applied to email, this could refer to the need to physically make your emails arrive in the inbox through good acquisition and deliverability practices. That’s square one for any email program. Without covering this need, it’s impossible to deliver on the next, which is…

2.    Safety needs: Maslow claims that once physiological needs are met, people are concerned with feeling safe, whether that’s safety from crime, financial security, etc.

Applied to email, this need means appearing as a familiar and trusted sender to your subscribers.  Are you recognizable in the inbox through your “from name” and engaging subject lines?  Assuming your customers subscribed, they will feel “safe” opening and engaging with your emails.

If you purchased a list, thus not addressing need #1, it’s alarming and creepy.  Don’t try to get too crafty with creative with “from names” or off-brand subject lines that leave your customers feeling as if they’re being stalked by a stranger.

3.    Belongingness and love needs: Next, Maslow claims the importance of people having friends, family, and intimacy.

Applied to email, this is where you need to establish a real relationship. Your data needs to power what your customers see.  When they open your email, does the content and products shown resonate and give a feeling of positivity and delight? An email that simply shows everyone the same message does little to make your customers feel like this email is for them, so get personalizing to show them some love!  Make them feel warm about your brand and give them a sense of belonging through the products and services you offer.

4.    Esteem needs: Maslow states that all humans have a need for self-respect, and to feel respected by others.

To meet the esteem needs of your customers, you have to show a level of empathy and respect, going beyond personalization. Are you showing content that’s useful and/or reminds customers of important they are to your brand?  Honor the relationship by recognizing loyalty, showing user-generated content, social responsibility and giving your recipients an overall feeling of satisfaction. This becomes especially important for millennials, who value companies for more intrinsically meaningful reasons than older generations tend to do.

5.    Self-Actualization: This need is at the apex of the pyramid, and is where someone’s true potential is met.

Applied to email, this need is ensuring that your customers' experiences with your emails and brand delight them so much that they are willing to share their experiences and become advocates. When you see a level of engagement that could signal brand advocacy, add social content in emails through open-time personalization to encourage participation on social.  

You can also invite these customers to join a community of valuable customers to share input, as Ann Taylor Loft did last year. Nothing speaks volumes to customers more than showing them how much their input and advocacy means to the future of your brand.

How have you applied old yet trusty marketing theories to your email marketing efforts? Would love to hear from you in the comments!

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