Incompetent Email Marketing = Lost Future Opportunities

by Jakob Nielsen on October 31, 2005

Summary: Lack of personalization made an email newsletter completely useless to the recipient, damaging long-term customer relationship efforts.

United Airlines deserves to go out of business. That's my conclusion after reading the incredibly incompetent email newsletter the company sent me.

At first look, the message wasn't that bad. It complied with 70% of the usability guidelines for the content and formatting of email newsletters . That's a decent score, considering that many other respectable newsletters score in the 60s. Most organizations don't take email usability seriously. They probably think: "How much can go wrong in the design of a simple email?"

Well, user testing shows that there are 165 guidelines for newsletters and another 73 for confirmation email . Clearly, there are more than a few opportunities to go wrong.

The Crime: Irrelevant Content

The real problem with United's newsletter was the promotion it contained. The email's purpose was to promote frequent-flyer travel by informing customers about destinations that had many available award seats. Theoretically, this is a good idea given that the airline industry's best customers have grown irate over the difficulty of cashing in those painfully accumulated mileage points.

In practice, however, the execution was horrible. The following box contains the message's only specific content; to find it, I had to wade through an initial screenfull of marketese.


Here are a few sample destinations with award seats
currently available for travel November 1 through December
15, 2005. Seats may not be available from November 18 to
November 28.
1. Chicago (ORD) -- Miami (MIA)
2. Denver (DEN) -- New York City (LGA)
3. Los Angeles (LAX) -- Kona (KOA)
4. San Francisco (SFO) -- Boston (BOS)
5. Washington, DC (IAD) -- Montreal (YUL)


Spot the error? 80% of the highlighted routes are irrelevant to any given user. No matter how nice the weather is in Florida, a free ticket from Chicago to Miami is meaningless if you live in the San Francisco bay area.

The airline knows all its users' addresses and the airport(s) they usually fly out of. It's therefore a trivial programming exercise to send each recipient a personalized message listing trips they might actually want to take.

Future Mailings Pay the Price

Personalization is certainly not the panacea claimed by personalization software vendors, but, as this newsletter shows, there are times when not choosing personalization is a disaster.

If our many email usability studies have taught us anything, it's that the inbox environment is even more ruthless than the Web. People are stressed and fast when they process new messages. Low relevancy equals immediate deletion. In this case, few users would get to the fourth item in the destinations list. After seeing that the first three items were a complete waste of their time, the message would be history.

Having your low-quality messages deleted is certainly an unfortunate fate. But the long-term impact of such clueless Internet marketing is even worse: your future messages may not even be opened. Once users are trained to expect such uselessness, they stop paying attention to your email.

Email newsletters are the best customer relationship mechanism the Internet offers, and every single mailing must strengthen the relationship between the company and its customers. More than simply a tactical mishap, bad mailings are a serious strategic mistake.

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