Nielsen Norman releases e-mail newsletter usability study

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E-mail newsletters can be a highly effective channel for marketing communications, according to a recent Nielsen Norman Group study, “E-mail Newsletter Usability,” but there are considerations to keep in mind for companies that want to keep readers engaged.

Sixty-nine percent of respondents to the company’s study, which used eye-tracking technology, said they looked forward to at least one newsletter. More than half (62%) said newsletters have become part of their day-to-day routine, and 50% said newsletters help their productivity.

“Users mentioned newsletters that provide industry information that helps them do their jobs, or information that gives them new ideas about things to do or business opportunities to pursue,” according to the report.

The study, the third in a series of studies Nielsen Norman has conducted since 2002 on e-mail newsletters, found users spent an average of 51 seconds reading a newsletter in their in-box, typically skimming its contents. The predominant behavior is to scan the text, with only 19% of newsletters being read fully, the study revealed.

E-mail marketers must deliver focused information quickly and clearly, said Jakob Nielsen, principal of Nielsen Norman Group. “When you are preparing a newsletter, don’t assume people will read the entire thing,” he said. “[Keep it] to the point, short and useful. You want to present them with a few items [that are] about a paragraph in length. It’s hard to produce very long, thought pieces in e-mail newsletters. However, you can give them useful information, and [provide a link to more information].”

The study also found that e-mail newsletters outperform RSS as a marketing channel. RSS has been touted by some as an alternative to e-mail marketing because spam isn’t an issue, and RSS feeds have the potential to be timelier than e-mail newsletters. However, the study found that 82% of respondents did not understand the acronym RSS, which stands for really simple syndication.

In addition, users who were already overwhelmed with information from various sources saw RSS as one more source of content they would have to find time for, according to the study. Others said they found it inconvenient to access information using another tool. “I get everything in my e-mail anyhow, so this would just be an extra step,” one respondent said.

Business-related newsletters in particular are high in value for many users, the study found. Eighty-one percent of participants said they receive valuable business-related newsletters, and the remaining 19% said they receive business-related e-mail newsletters that they characterize as “occasionally of interest,” but never a “must have.”

Participants said their most valued business newsletters are the ones that provide utilitarian information that helps them do their jobs or understand their companies better. That includes information such as news about their company and competitors, trends in the industry and the latest research.

Perhaps most important for marketers, 35% of respondents said that e-mail newsletters have influenced business purchases. Nielsen suggested that, whenever possible, companies sending business newsletters should know recipients’ purchasing schedules in order to leverage that information when sending e-mail marketing messages.

Another insight the study turned up is that respondents said they tend to archive old newsletters. With new desktop search products now available, such as Google Search, those old newsletters are searchable for the user. Nielsen suggested e-mail marketers should not only be optimizing their Web sites for search but should also think in terms of keywords when creating e-mail newsletters.

“They become part of people’s ‘information space.’ That means you have to think about keywords for your newsletter,” he said. “You want to be sure when people search for a topic you are covering in an e-mail, that it pops up in that particular search. You want to use the same terminology that your target audience is using. Newsletters need to be thought of as a long-term, multiyear investment. Desktop search is a way to have that longer-term relationship.”

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