Email Newsletter Usability

Get to the Point NewsletterThe Nielsen Norman Group has published a study on Email Newsletter Usability that sheds some light on the effectiveness of this marketing strategy.

Their findings were interesting and highlighted the importance of both design and an effective subscription management service. The study also confirmed that newsletters have a social impact as they are often forwarded to friends, family and colleagues.

If you are in this business this is probably a report worth purchasing, but as a user I have paraphrased the findings from the Executive Summary.

Following are some of the highlights:

“69% of the users indicated they looked forward to receiving a particular newsletter.”

Users have highly emotional reactions to newsletters. This is in strong contrast to studies of website usability, where users are usually much more oriented towards functionality. Even a website that you visit daily will feel like a tool where you simply want to get in and get out.”

“The positive emotional aspect of newsletters is that they can create much more of a bond between user and company than a website can. The negative aspect is that usability problems have much stronger impact on the customer relationship than they normally do.”

Users spend 51 seconds reading the average newsletter. The layout and writing both need superb usability to survive in the high-pressure environment of a crowded inbox.”

“Averaged across the study, newsletters lost 19% of potential subscribers due to usability difficulties in their subscription processes and designs. People often stay subscribed to newsletters they don’t want (cursing the sender with every new issue that clutters their inbox), so the unsubscribe process is also worth improving.”

Newsletters need to be smooth and easy: they must be seen to reduce the burdens of modern life. Even if free, the cost in e-mail clutter must be paid for by being helpful and relevant to users – and by communicating these benefits in a few characters in the subject line.”

The study also explored why people who were frustrated by the Unsubscribe process continued to receive the newsletter. I can personally attest to this as I continue to receive newsletter that I do not read, but every time I try to unsubscribe I end up spending too much time trying to get through the process.

The four main reasons people didn’t attempt to unsubscribe were:

  1. Emotional attachment to the newsletter: Users said that it didn’t feel good to sever the relationship, even when they no longer read the mailings.
  2. Low expectations for the website’s usability: People assumed that it would be difficult and time-consuming to unsubscribe, so they postponed the job for another day and simply deleted the newsletter’s current issue.
  3. Fear that unsubscribing would fail and would subject the user to even more mail: Many people have heard that asking to get off spam lists only confirms the validity of their email address to the spammers; this notion has become an urban legend that contaminates users’ mental model of legitimate newsletter publishers as well.
  4. Easier options: It’s often easier to simply use a spam-blocking feature to stop future issues than it is to unsubscribe.

Competing For Readers Time
Users are getting more selective about which newsletters they’ll read. According to the study some are cutting back on the number of newsletters they receive. These users view newsletters as being in direct competition with each other for a limited number of slots in the inbox. Users will unsubscribe from a newsletter or stop reading it—even if it’s good—if they come across a different one on the same topic that better serves their needs.

This study also revealed that users spent an average of 51 seconds on each of the newsletters they read from their own inbox. Users spent an additional 33 seconds on information found by pursuing newsletter links to websites.

How Do People Read Newsletter? (Click on image for larger view)

Eyetracking heatmaps showing how many users read each part of two newsletters. The areas where users looked the most are colored red; the yellow areas indicate fewer views, followed by the least-viewed blue areas.

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