Targeted Email Newsletters Show Continued Strength

by Jakob Nielsen on February 17, 2004

Summary: E-newsletters that are informative, convenient, and timely are often preferred over other media. However, a new study found that only 11% of newsletters were read thoroughly, so layout and content scannability are paramount.


Email newsletters continue to be one of the most important ways to communicate with customers on the Internet. Newsletters build relationships with users, and also offer users an added social benefit in that they can forward relevant newsletters to friends and colleagues. Still, users are highly critical of newsletters that waste their time, and often ignore or delete newsletters that have insufficient usability.

User Research

Our first study of newsletter usability was in 2002. This is very recent, considering that user behavior doesn't typically change much from year to year. Normally, I wouldn't retest a particular design domain so soon, but newsletters are different than other media for several reasons. First, the email user experience has actually changed substantially, especially concerning spam. Second, we wanted to focus our new study more on the user experience of receiving and reading newsletters; the first study mainly tested the usability of newsletters' subscribing, unsubscribing, and account maintenance processes.

We conducted the new study remotely using a diary methodology, which allowed a wide geographical distribution of participants. We tested participants from twelve states across the U.S., along with users in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. We studied 101 of the 345 newsletters that participants were already subscribed to on their own initiative, testing users' newsletter experiences over a four-week period in most cases, and a two-week period in a few cases.

This longitudinal approach allowed more emphasis on how people deal with incoming newsletters during their workday . It also let us test many more B2B and intranet newsletters than we could cover in the first study, which mainly tested B2C newsletters. Of the newsletters received by users in our second study, 65% were for personal purposes and 40% were for business purposes (users viewed 5% of newsletters as both personal and business, so we counted them twice).

Combining the data from the two studies, we identified 127 design guidelines for email newsletter usability . This compares with 79 guidelines identified in the first study. The old guidelines continue to be valid: after all, two years is a short time period and best practices don't change that quickly. However, our new study's focus on different aspects of the newsletter user experience let us add 48 new guidelines and slightly refine some of the existing ones.

Spam Is a Fact of Life

Although there is a little good news about the impact of spam on email newsletters, the news is mostly bad. The good news is that, compared to past study participants, users in our most recent study were better able to differentiate legitimate opt-in newsletters from unsolicited messages. Spam now has a very prominent profile in terms of popular awareness, press coverage, and the sheer amount of it that's hitting inboxes. Users have thus developed a reasonable understanding of the phenomenon, rather than simply being baffled about unexpected messages.

The bad news is that increased spam has made people even more stressed and impatient when processing their inboxes. Users have less tolerance than ever for newsletters that waste their time.

We've also found that users often employ their spam filters to avoid newsletters that they no longer want. Instead of unsubscribing, which users often view as too cumbersome, they simply tell their spam-blocker that the newsletter is spam. Voila: the newsletter no longer arrives in the inbox.

The fact that many users will declare a newsletter to be spam when they tire of it has terrifying implications: legitimate newsletters might get blacklisted and thus ISPs might block their delivery to other subscribers . This is a compelling reason to increase the usability of the unsubscribe process: better to lose a subscriber than to be listed as spam.

Scannability

In our study, users' most frequent complaint was about newsletters that arrived too often . And, when we let them vent, the most frequent advice our study participants had for newsletter editors was to " keep it brief ."

Newsletters must be designed to facilitate scanning. In our first study, participants read 23% of the newsletters thoroughly. In our second study, two years later, only 11% of the newsletters were read thoroughly . This drop in percentage of thoroughly read newsletters is a good indication of the increased volume of email users have to process.

Users' dominant mode of dealing with email newsletters is to skim them: that's what happened to 57% of the newsletters in our second study. The remaining newsletters were either never read (22%) or saved for later reading (10%) . Of course, many of the newsletters that users "save" will never actually be read: once they scroll below the visible area of the inbox, they may never be seen again.

Sometimes, users simply skim the headlines to get an update or overview of what's going on in the newsletter's target area. As one user said, "I like to keep up to date in the industry, but rarely delve deeper than the cover page." Other times, users deliberately pick out a few elements that they deem most important and ignore the rest. As another user said, "I review the contents by company and only read the companies of interest to me."

Designing for users who scan rather than read is essential for a newsletter's survival. Scannability is important for websites as well, but it's about 50% more important for newsletters. The implications? Layouts must be designed to let users quickly grasp each issue's content and zero in on specifics. Content and writing styles must support users who read only part of the material.

Immediate Utility

Newsletters must be current and timely, as indicated by three of the four main reasons that users listed for why a certain newsletter was the most valuable they received. Each of the following reasons were given by more than 40% of users:

  • Work-related news and/or activities in their own company or other companies (mentioned by 2/3 of users)
  • Prices and sales
  • Personal interests and hobbies
  • Events, deadlines, and important dates

As demonstrated by this list, there's pretty much a "what have you done for me lately" phenomenon at play, where newsletters must justify their inbox space on a daily basis. Having been relevant in the past is not enough. Because of the medium's immediacy, newsletters must be relevant today and address the user's specific needs in the moment.

However, because newsletters build relationships with readers, and because it's so easy for readers to ignore individual editions, newsletters do have some leeway here. The key is for a newsletter to be predictably relevant at particular times. During periods in which a newsletter isn't relevant to users, they can simply ignore it rather than unsubscribing.

For example, a speech pathologist at an elementary school said that she could only purchase new products at the end of the school year and that she ignored product-related newsletters the rest of the year. Still, she didn't unsubscribe; thus she would still be getting the newsletters when her budget arrived and reading them could help inform her purchases.

Future of E-Newsletters

In our 2002 newsletter usability report, I said about the future of email newsletters: "There may be none. Legitimate use of email is at war with spam, and spam may be winning."

Although two years is a very short period in which to assess big trends, I now believe that this assessment was too negative. Email newsletters are so powerful that the best of them do have a future, despite increasingly adverse conditions.

Ever-increasing information overload is certainly making users reluctant to sign up for more email. And, once newsletters arrive in the user's inbox, they might simply be deleted as part of a ruthless mass deletion procedure aimed at the morning's spam. Finally, as discussed above, fear of spam and other email abuse is keeping users from dealing rationally with newsletter subscriptions.

The fight for inbox survival might therefore leave room for only the most useful, targeted newsletters, leaving less valued newsletters in the dust. But good newsletters have a future because they establish relationships with users and continually deliver benefits.

When we asked users to describe the benefits of email newsletters, three reasons stood out, each being highlighted by more than one-third of users:

  • Informative : They keep users up to date (mentioned by two-thirds of the users).
  • Convenient : They're delivered straight to the user's information central and require no further action beyond a simple click.
  • Timely : They offer current information and real-time delivery.

Newsletters that leverage these advantages (and other points that users mentioned) have a stable future. To survive, newsletters need only give users specific benefits that help them with life or work issues in the here and now.

Comparing email newsletters with other media, one user said: "Bottom line, I'd rather have it in an email newsletter than in the regular mail. I can click Delete if I don't want it; I don't have to throw anything away; and it is usually easier to unsubscribe if you don't want to get anymore." Convenience rules.

In fact, this is one of the few times that we've found the virtual world to be better and more convenient than the physical world . Websites, for example, typically have such poor usability that they compare very unfavorably with real-world stores or in-person services and communities. In contrast, email newsletters have a very strong position.

To capitalize on their potential, email newsletters must be carefully targeted, not just at narrow readership segments , but also at particular problems or situations that each segment faces. Broad-based, chatty, or generic information is less appropriate for email newsletters.

The Wall Street Journal recently noted the poor prospects of a newsletter "targeted at women." But 50% of the population is not exactly a narrow target, and generic information that's not situation-specific doesn't benefit from email's special characteristic. Not all media forms are good for all purposes. The Internet has never been a mass medium; newsletters are even less suited for mass audiences. But they shine for narrowcast services, which can be exceptionally lucrative.

Full Report

The full report on email newsletter usability with 221 design guidelines for newsletters is available for download.


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