Why do users give their opt-in to email marketing? And what prevents them from doing so? In the context of the article Determinants of Email Marketing Opt-ins from a User Point of View we have demonstrated, which factors of the decision making process of a user regarding email marketing opt-ins can have a positive or negative influence. However, it is not only important to know the specific determinants in order to optimise the response, but also to know the underlying theories from the behavioural sciences, which explain the decision making process of users.

When making the decision for or against an opt-in, users orient themselves on a simple cost-benefit calculation. The stimulus contribution theory, as well as equity theory try to theoretically explain this cost-benefit calculation. Another relevant theory is that of the psychological reactance. This theory deals with defence reactions against marketing measures. This is only a selection of relevant theories and none of them raises the claim to fully reflect all facets of the decision making process. To create a more or less complete picture, the individual theories must complement each other.

Stimulus Contribution Theory

The stimulus contribution theory has its origin in the organisations theory and attempts to explain how employees can be motivated to support their company, i.e. to make a contribution in the form of their work performance. The theory is based on the assumption that employees in general are only prepared to a limited extent to contribute to their company and therefore need a stimulus, e.g. in the form of financial compensation. As each employee strives to maximise his benefit, the benefit provided by the stimulus needs to be equal to the benefit, which he “loses” through his contribution. The more the benefit exceeds the contribution, the more likely the employee is prepared to make the contribution or even increase this contribution.
Applied to email marketing, employees become users. The principle however, remains the same. With his opt-in, a user makes a contribution to the company. The more comprehensive the given opt-in is, the larger the contribution, e.g. when the opt-in does not only include the consent for email marketing but also an agreement to profiling of response data. In order to give an opt-in, a user requires stimuli, such as exclusive special offers. The article Determinants of Email Marketing Opt-ins from a User Point of View deals with these specific stimuli and contributions relevant for an opt-in in email marketing. The stimulus contribution theory offers an explanation of the effects of different determinants on the decision making process of a user.

Equity Theory

The Equity Theory originally comes from Social Psychology and deals with the questions when does a person experience an exchange relationship as fair and how does a person behave when he considers an exchange relationship as unfair. The pre-assumption is that a person experiences an exchange relationship as fair when the ratio of input and output is the same for both sides. Input are the contributions made by a person in the exchange relationship. Output is the benefit, a person draws from the exchange. The evaluation of input and output is purely subjective, even when an objective evaluation would be possible, e.g. in monetary values. Another precondition is that the input and output are actually perceived and considered relevant for the exchange.
Regarding consent in email marketing, the equity theory states that the user expects a “fair reward” for providing his data. According to the equity theory, users (unconsciously) also include the cost benefit calculation of the company. For example, when a user agrees to comprehensive profiling, which will allow the company to have the benefit increased by factor X, the user also expects that the benefit of the compensation is increased by the same factor X. According to the stimulus contribution theory, the user does only consider his own benefit. Hence the benefit does not necessarily need to increase by the same (subjective) factor, as long as it exceeds the contribution of the user.

Psychological Reactance

The Theory of Psychological Reactance also has its origin in Social Psychology. The theory assumes that a person, who feels personally limited in his free behaviour or is afraid of such limitation, will put up resistance against this limitation. The motivation, which caused this resistance, is called reactance. The extent of resistance depends on the scope of the subjective loss of behavioural freedom, the strength of the threat, as well as the subjective significance of freedom for the person in question. A precondition for the occurrence of psychological reactance is that the person actually views the behavioural freedom affected as important. If the affected behavioural freedom is irrelevant for someone, the limitation of this freedom will not trigger a reactance with him. Furthermore, the person must actually be aware of the limitation.
Reactance can have different effects on a person:

  • Conscious behaviour with the aim to revoke the limitation of free behaviour.
  • Acquisition of a “new” behavioural freedom substituting the limited one.
  • Aggressive defence reaction, possibly with the intention to harm the “limiter of free behaviour”.
  • Change of one’s own attitude, so that the limitation of free behaviour is seen as less severe.

By agreeing to email marketing, users pass on the control over how they wish to be approached with communication measures to certain parts of the company. Marketing communication in genera l– not only via email – is seen as influencing and therefore attempted limitation of freedom of consumption by many users. In addition, we have the subject of sensitive data. By giving his consent to email marketing and profiling, a user transfers personal data to the company. The freedom to manage the use of this data, becomes limited. Even when the submission of an email marketing opt-in is always voluntary, i.e. the user freely and voluntarily decides to limit his free behaviour, it can cause reactances, which may discourage him from an opt-in or lead him to withdraw a given opt-in. In order to reduce these reactances, we must gain the user’s trust through legal and transparent processes and take his fear of data misuse away. Furthermore, reactances can be broken down by giving users greater opportunities to control the communication frequency and content themselves.