Report: Usability key to success of e-mail newsletters

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E-mail newsletters are powerful but dangerous marketing tools, able to forge close customer ties or swiftly eliminate them, according to a recent report from the Nielsen Norman Group, an Internet usability consulting firm.

Newsletters provide a personal touch and enable companies to build ongoing relationships with customers, said the report, which was issued last month. But usability—the ease with which recipients can access, read and manage the e-mail—is the key to building bonds between vendors and customers. Poor usability will alienate customers, the report said.

Easy subscription management is vital. Users should find it simple to subscribe and unsubscribe from newsletters, and companies should never put individuals on the mailing list unless the users have explicitly asked for the newsletter, the report warned.

Failed unsubscribe attempts are particular problems. If users continue to receive an unwanted newsletter, "every week they get a reminder you’re an annoying company," said Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group. "That’s really bad."

Forrester Research analyst Jim Nail said: "Consumers have an expectation that the content is gong to be relevant, and if all you do is badger them to buy this and buy that, the consumer doesn’t get any value out of it. They’ll unsubscribe and say, `That company really ticked me off.’ "

Still, Nail said, "E-mail is the only channel that makes the concept of things like CRM and one-to-one marketing possible."

While users are reluctant to register and give out information about themselves on Web sites, they are willing to do so to receive e-mail newsletters, and that information can be used for targeted marketing, he said.

The importance of testing

E-mail marketers need to try out their newsletters on a varied audience, the report said. Unlike Web browsers, there’s a huge difference between different e-mail clients in the way they display content. For example, some can display HTML, some can’t; some can display certain images, some can’t.

Spam is the enemy of e-mail marketing and could prove fatal to e-mail newsletters as marketing tools, the report said. Spam is making some recipients hate legitimate e-mail marketing. Also, as e-mail volume increases overall, users have less time to spend on e-mail, which makes them hostile to unwanted e-mail newsletters.

"Users are quick to jump to unfavorable conclusions," the report said. "If anything at all went wrong while using a newsletter—whether during sign up, receiving the newsletter or unsubscribing—users were quick to assume bad intentions by the newsletter providers. Words like ‘scam,’ ‘manipulative’ and ‘trick’ were used to describe aspects of the newsletters." Also, the study found, users became suspicious when they received spam after signing up for a newsletter.

Newsletters need to be short and simple, the study said. Only 23% of the newsletters examined by the Nielsen Norman Group were read thoroughly, with others skimmed or read partly. About 27% were not opened at all.

The study looked at 10 b-to-b and consumer newsletters, including Trend Alert, from business analysts The Herman Group, and Technology Bytes, from investment analyst Morningstar.

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