Summary: New research finds improved usability metrics for subscribing to newsletters, but problems with reading them on mobile devices.
Email newsletters remain the Internet's best tool for supplementing a website. The two media forms are supplementary:
5 Rounds of User Research
We've studied newsletter usability through 5 research rounds:
- Study 1 (8 years ago): Lab-based testing with 15 participants, focusing on the subscribe and unsubscribe processes, as well as receiving and opening newsletters.
- Study 2 (6 years ago): Diary study with 30 participants in 6 countries (Australia, China, Japan, Sweden, the U.K., and the U.S.) examining the role of email newsletters in subscribers' daily lives over a 4-week period.
- Study 3 (4 years ago): Eyetracking study with 42 participants and a field study with 6 participants; the focus was on how people read (or, mainly, scan) email inboxes and newsletter content.
- Study 4 (new): Lab-based testing with 16 users in the U.S. and the U.K., including testing with mobile devices and exploring the impact of tone-of-voice in newsletter content.
- Study 5 (conducted after this article was written): in-depth research with people reading email newsletters on their mobile devices.
So, in total, our design guidelines for newsletter user experience are now based on systematic studies of 270 newsletters across 124 participants, as well as single-user testing of several hundred additional newsletters that study participants already received in their personal inboxes.
Old Findings Confirmed
Most findings from our first 3 rounds of newsletter research were confirmed in our new study.
As usual with any replicated user research, we did find some changes and additional insights — even for "old" topics such as the subscription interface and subject line. The number of newsletter usability guidelines has grown from 149 to 199. (The bar for acceptable user experience keeps being raised.)
But most new findings were in areas that have risen to prominence since our previous study: social networks, video, and mobile access. I'll focus on these new topics later, but first we'll look at two key issues: the sheer amount of email that users receive and how usability is evolving over time.
One clear trend since our last study is the ever-increasing amount of mail in people's inboxes. In both the 3rd and 4th studies, we asked users to log in to their own email accounts, and the number of new or unread messages is now 300% higher than it was just 4 years ago.
It's clear that users are falling further behind in keeping up with their email. This doesn't change the old guidelines regarding the importance of using clear "from" and "subject" lines to ensure your messages attract attention; in fact, busier inboxes simply make these guidelines even more important. In the past, a newsletter might have gotten away with a generic or spammy subject line. Today, that same design will doom it.
One poor subject line came from InterContinental Hotels: "Open Your (I)s to the Wonders of the Sea." Yes, it's a clever allusion to the "(I)" in the company's logo, and if users take the time, they'll likely figure out to read this as "eyes." But while dashing through their inboxes, people simply don't have time for word plays, puns, and the like. Also, to entice users to open a message, the subject needs vastly stronger information scent than "wonders of the sea," which can mean anything.
In addition to subject lines, users now pay more attention to message previews. This change is partly driven by the increasing email volume (users can decide whether to dispose of or keep messages without opening them all) and partly driven by more mobile access (users can't see much on a small screen).
It's always been a guideline to start a newsletter with the most important stuff, but the increased use of previews makes it even more important to focus on high-value content at the start of a message, since users are less likely now to look beyond it. (It almost goes without saying that "high-value" is judged based on what's valuable to the recipients — not on what you feel like promoting today.)
Newsletter Usability Improvements
We've tested subscription user interfaces in 3 rounds, and the measured usability has improved each time:
- Study 1 (8 years ago): 79% success rate; task time 5:04 (minutes:seconds).
- Study 3 (4 years ago): 81% success rate; task time 4:03.
- Study 4 (now): 85% success rate; task time 3:32.
The faster task times are particularly impressive, with an improvement of 43% over an 8-year period.
When user experience metrics improve over time, there are two possible explanations: higher-usability design or higher-skilled users. In the case of email newsletters, there's probably a bit of both. But, overall, users don't seem to be much savvier now regarding newsletter subscriptions than they were 8 years ago.
So, the main explanation for the improved performance is probably that websites are indeed getting better at designing to attract newsletter subscribers. One data point to support this assessment comes from our analysis of political campaign newsletters from national elections in 2004 and 2010. Averaged across the parties, the newsletters' compliance with our usability guidelines was:
At least in the narrow case of election newsletters, design has improved over time. Not as much as we'd like, of course, which might be why success rates improved by only slightly less than one percentage point per year. Still: things are looking up.
Competing With Social Networks
Email newsletters are a better way to stay in touch with customers than updates posted on social networks like Facebook or Twitter:
- A newsletter goes into the inbox and sits there, whereas social networks use a stream-based interface metaphor, where new postings constantly replace old ones.
- As we found when testing social networks, people turn to these services primarily to keep in touch with friends and family, and corporate content is often mismatched with this mindset.
- Newsletters are under your control design-wise and hold much more information. One user offered the following comparison of newsletters and Facebook updates: "You get a lot more information in newsletters than on Facebook. Facebook to me is more just a general one-liner about something that's going on versus a newsletter that contains content and details on a variety of topics and subjects."
In our latest study, we asked users to "receive updates" from companies. Only 10% elected to do so through Facebook, while 90% opted for a newsletter.
Although users weren't really interested in receiving company updates through social networks, they are information sources that compete for people's attention. Some users reported hearing about breaking news through Facebook before they received a news alert via email.
Your newsletter subscribers are usually your most loyal customers and fans, so it's important to treat them better than the more fickle audience on social networks. Obviously, having enhanced content in the newsletter is one way of doing so. But you should also make sure to send out the newsletter announcing, say, sales or new products before tweeting such news.
On the positive side, your newsletter can confer social advantages to subscribers: you can feed them tidbits that they can post to their own contacts, making them feel more informed. This rewards your most loyal followers, while still spreading your message on social services.
Mobile Use: Quick Reads, Slow Reads
Since our first research with mobile devices in 2000, we've found that killing time is a killer app for mobile use. When people are out and about, they often find themselves in situations with a few minutes to kill, and mobile content can fill that need.
The new study replicated this old finding. Many users read newsletters on their mobile devices when they had time to spare. In these circumstances, some users said that they were more willing to look at longer content than they'd normally read while processing email on their desktop computers.
On the other hand, much mobile use is characterized by even more time pressure than desktop use. People often check email on mobile devices during quick breaks when they want to allocate time only to high-priority messages.
Thus, some newsletters should be even more quick and to-the-point for mobile use, while others can afford to present more leisurely content. It might be better to do one or the other rather than aim for a middle-of-the-road approach that will satisfy neither usage scenario.
One big problem in the latest study was that many newsletters were poorly formatted for reading on small mobile screens. Indeed, people rated the ease of reading newsletters on their mobile devices a miserable 3.3 on a 1–7 scale.
Video in Email
Video has a role in newsletters, but it's a small one for most topics. Users are often rushed when processing email, and watching videos takes time. As one study participant said, "I probably wouldn't watch this. It's a video, not text. I expected an article, not a video. With video, you have to watch the whole thing. Even if it's just a minute, I'm not into watching video. And if I was on the phone, I couldn't watch it. I wouldn't want to watch it on my phone, anyway."
In most cases, newsletter videos should be secondary and supplementary to text and images that users can scan directly in the newsletter. To set proper user expectations, the design must make it absolutely clear whether something links to a video or to an article.
Users were hesitant to click on videos within newsletters if they weren't sure what they would get. It's important to clearly describe the video in words. Also, carefully pick a preview image that communicates the video's nature instead of simply showing the first frame. Finally, state the video's duration.
Long Live the Internet (and Your Newsletter)
The Web, email, and newsletters are not exactly new phenomena anymore. As a result, we're seeing an intriguing longevity effect. For example, one study participant decided to subscribe to a newsletter after reading about it in a (dead-trees) book. Another signed up for a newsletter while attending a conference ( "honestly, to get a free tote bag" ) and proceeded to read that newsletter after the event.
50% of our users said that email newsletters influenced their B2B purchases, but the influence was only occasional, when the timing happened to be right. Often, the newsletter served to grow or retain a vendor's reputation or to maintain a relationship during dry spells when users lacked the budgets needed to actively conduct business.
When it comes to customer relationships, newsletters must be seen as a long-term investment: they work their magic over time. On the strategic level, this is why you should emphasize value-added publishing instead of simply spamming too-frequent newsletters to any email address you can lay your hands on. On a more tactical level, it's why you should follow old guidelines like keeping the same URL year after year, instead of building (and abandoning) new microsites every season.
The full report on email newsletter usability with 221 design guidelines for newsletters is available for download. (Includes findings from research conducted after this article, but the main conclusions remain the same.)