It has long been known that an e-newsletter is a useful addition to your marketing and public relations efforts. They are, after all, a warm, powerful communication medium that encourages a strong, lasting relationship between you and your readers. There is some new clarity in the world of online newsletters thanks to research coming from the Nielsen Norman Group in their latest report, E-mail Newsletter Usability. They conducted three rounds of user studies with 93 participants in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, and Sweden. The three studies were as follows:

First Study. This study focused on testing e-newsletter usability in terms of subscribing, unsubscribing, and maintaining the user’s account. It was primarily done in a laboratory setting (with other parts being done through phone calls). Researchers observed subjects as they read e-newsletters and tried to subscribe and unsubscribe.

Second Study. This was a remote study that examined in a detailed way the users’ experience receiving and reading e-newsletters that they’d already subscribed to on their own initiative. A total of 101 newsletters were studied over a four-week period, 65% of which were of personal interest, and 40% were for business purposes. The 5% that overlapped these categories were counted twice.

Third Study. This study used an eye tracker to record where users looked when they looked at Web sites, tried to subscribe and unsubscribe, checked their e-mail inboxes, and read their e-newsletters. Also, the researchers compared Real Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds to e-newsletters and observed participants in their offices during a normal workday to learn how newsletters and news feeds are used in a demanding, information-rich environment. The results of this study are both interesting and useful to anyone who either has or is contemplating an e-newsletter for their business.

Justify Your e-Newsletter

Three of the four main reasons that the study participants mentioned why a given e-newsletter was the most valuable had to do with relevance and timing. The e-newsletters that fell into this preferred category were able to justify their place in the inbox with highly relevant and timely information. Past relevance and generally interesting content don’t cut it. There has to be a purpose behind the e-newsletter, and it has to offer something important to the reader today. According to the researchers, the top reasons for preferring a given e-newsletter (given by over 40% of the participants) are:

Informs of work-related news or company actions (mentioned by two-thirds of users)
Reports prices/sales
Informs about personal interests/hobbies
Informs about events/deadlines/important dates
There is, however, a bit of flexibility here. While e-newsletters are, indeed, about giving information, they are also about relationships. That means you can get away with a bit of irrelevancy now and again since a reader who doesn’t find anything interesting in this month’s edition will probably delete it rather than unsubscribing altogether, especially when you put some time and effort into improving your user’s experience.

High Usability is Key

Your customers need to manage their subscriptions very easily, and that is a goal that the very design of an e-newsletter supports nicely. The two most likely reasons for this are:

Simple Functionality. Users are either getting on or getting off a mailing list. This is a simple function that is easy to design straightforwardly.

Accountability. User subscription decisions are often based on how easy it is to subscribe. If it is tough, subscriptions drop until the design is simplified. The most recent study results showed that task completion for subscribing and unsubscribing was 81% and 91%, respectively. This is remarkably high when compared to 66% for other types of Web designs, though, according to the researchers, “They’re still lower than anything we would deem a truly great user experience.” One example of the benefits of improving this deals with the number of subscribers. “If, for example, a newsletter with 50,000 subscribers ensured that everyone could correctly operate its subscription interface, it could add an estimated 11,700 subscribers on average.”

What keeps it from being the best that it can be is time. True, the time it takes to complete these tasks has never been particularly onerous, and it has been dropping in recent years (4 years ago, it took 5 minutes to subscribe to an e-newsletter, today it takes 4 minutes), but the time involved is still a problem for most users. According to the researchers, “The slower the subscribe or unsubscribe process, the fewer people will like the site.

Newsletter Usability

For each additional minute it takes to subscribe, you will lose 0.3 satisfaction points on a 1 to 7 scale, and for each additional minute it takes to unsubscribe, you will lose 0.6 satisfaction points. As indicated by the numbers, users are substantially more critical of a slow unsubscribe process. Once they want out, they want out quickly.” Of course, that satisfaction rating of 7 would mean that these processes are done instantaneously, something that will have to wait for thought-controlled computers, but the message is clear: Extreme simplicity has a great, positive impact on your customers, and it is worth pursuing.

The Irony of Remaining on Unwanted Mailing Lists

We have all done it, decided that we no longer want to receive mailings from a given source, and yet, for some reason, we never manage to unsubscribe and server that flow of unwanted information. Why? The researchers with the Nielsen Norman Group have some answers for that as well. It turns out that part of the reason goes back to functionality, but a bigger part is emotional. That’s right: E-mail newsletters evoke highly emotional reactions, while Web sites are seen more as tools to be used and put away. Users make actual emotional connections with newsletters.

Other reasons found in the studies for why people stay on unwanted mailing lists include:

Low Usability Expectations. Users assume that unsubscribing would be difficult and time-consuming, so they elect to delete the newsletter’s current issue.

Fear of Spam. People are afraid that asking to be removed from spam lists only confirms that their e-mail address is valid and then sold to spammers. Unfortunately, this does happen, though not as often as some might think, and it does damage the prospects and reputation of legitimate e-newsletter publishers.

Easier Options. Spam-blocking software and anti-spam features offered by e-mail clients and services are often easier to use to stop unwanted newsletters than it is to go through the unsubscribe process.

Many of these issues go back to past problems with spam and usability, but you must be able to overcome them. Your customers have to trust that their decision will be respected when they opt out, and their e-mail addresses will not be sold or otherwise distributed. They have to know that anything they have to do vis-à-vis their account will be simple and easy to do. Your processes should be at least as easy, if not easier, than the latest anti-spam software on the market.

How People Read Your e-Newsletter Counts

By now, there is no surprise that people read what is on a computer screen a lot differently from the way they read a paper document. People read a paper document as a whole unit. That is, they read it from top to bottom and generally pay attention to everything in it. That is not the case with Web sites, and it is certainly not the case with e-newsletters.

In 2006, Jakob Nielsen described an F-shaped reading pattern for web users. He and his research team recorded 232 users looking at thousands of Web pages. They found that the main reading behavior of the participants was fairly consistent with the dominant reading pattern resembling an F and showing the following three components:

Horizontal movement across the upper part of the content area, forming the top bar of the F. A second horizontal movement that is a bit below the first and covers a shorter area. This forms the lower bar of the F. A vertical movement that can be slow and systematic or quite fast. This forms the stem of the F. People are more likely to read through the top and then bounce through the headers and graphics, scanning the rest of the content until they find something that catches their interest. Generally, users scanned the content to pick out the few things that interested them, whether specific content types such as an OP/ED blog or specific topics such as certain companies or technologies. From the point of view of someone putting an e-newsletter together, the results of this eye tracking research lead us to a couple of conclusions:

Important things should go up top and to the left.
Interesting graphics are good; interesting faces are great.
Layout styles that support scanning over reading are far more useful. Your users must be able to quickly grasp each issue’s content and zero in on specifics.
Writing that supports scanning over in-depth reading is, likewise, far more useful.
It also points up another necessity for a successful e-newsletter: Know your audience. It seems almost silly to say, but you need to know who you are writing for. You need to know what they are interested in, and that is the content you need to be providing. These data show that people skim searching for what they want and don’t spend time on things that they don’t care about, so give them what they want.

A Word on Real Simple Syndication (RSS) Feeds

The researchers found that RSS feeds got a mixed reaction from the participants, with some liking them and others not. One thing they discovered was that most people don’t know what RSS means. In fact, 82% of them had no idea what the acronym stands for. That, in and of itself, is reason enough to quit calling them RSS feeds. There is enough jargon in the world, so why not just call the things News Feeds? Another thing they found was, whether they liked using news feeds or not, users scan headlines and blurbs in feeds even more ruthlessly than they scan newsletters. If your content doesn’t reach out and grab them, they pass it by. Some of the general findings, according to the researchers, are as follows:

Some people liked viewing information from multiple sites in a single centralized location instead of going to each site. Some users also liked scanning a list of headlines without seeing any content they didn’t ask for. A final benefit some users appreciated was determining when they would go and view their news items. This is in contrast with newsletter arrival times, which users can’t control.

Newsletter Usability

On the other hand, many users had negative feelings about feeds. People who are already suffering from information overload resent having to go to yet another source of information. In contrast, email newsletters arrive in a tool that people already use, so they don’t add another thing for over-burdened users to do. Email is also easier to archive for later use, whereas feeds have an ephemeral nature.

Several participants in our study had stopped using the feeds on their My Yahoo! page. Many previous studies have found that users are reluctant to spend time customizing portals, so it’s not surprising that some users decided to stop looking at that part of the page rather than edit their preference settings.

Finally, some users resented the fact that news feeds are divorced from the context of the publisher’s website. These users preferred the serendipity that came from visiting a full-fledged website that offered options beyond the current headlines.

News Feeds with a Purpose

While news feeds are no replacement for e-newsletters, considering that they are far colder and don’t build relationships the same way newsletters do, news feeds do have a place in the information delivery world. For those users who prefer to have headlines available in a single, centralized spot, news feeds can be a great supplement to an e-newsletter. Another venue is a site that has a heavy focus on news and breaking stories. For broader consumer and mainstream business audiences, news feeds are less useful, and such an audience is usually better served by a high-quality e-newsletter.

A Final Word on Grabbing and Holding Your Audience

Consider this: You have less than a minute to grab your reader. Current research points to something in the neighborhood of 51 seconds. True, that is better than a typical Web site, where 20 seconds is the norm, but that is still very little time. Here are some pointers:

Write a killer subject line. With the subject line of your e-mail, you have a chance to catch your reader’s interest before they ever open the mail. Please don’t waste it. Distill your top topic into a punchy 50 or 60 characters (yes, characters), and let that introduce the e-newsletter.

Catchy, informative headlines. Remember, people scan rather than read, so make sure your headlines tell them something that will hook them into drilling down into your material. Solid Content. Make it relevant, make it interesting and make it meaningful. This is where you earn your spot in their inbox, and you have to earn it every time your e-newsletter shows up.

Remember the F: Scan-friendly layout. Make sure your most important stuff is near the top and that your headlines run down the side. You don’t want your reader to miss something important because you didn’t make it easy to find.

High Usability. When your readers have to do something, whether that subscribes, unsubscribe, or simply maintain their account information, make it as simple and straightforward as possible. Making things difficult, especially making the unsubscribe processdifficultlyt, is the surest way to breed resentment. All you will do is kill your chances to do business with that person while adding to the content of their spam folder or wastebasket.