Usability study takeaways worth noting

Welcome to 2011! Yes, we’ve been into this new year for quite some time, but this is my first note of the year and I feel it’s OK to kick things off with a hearty salutation.

I’m going to begin this year by highlighting a recent usability study the Norman Nielsen Group conducted of email newsletters across the U.S. and abroad. Given the highly emotional reactions consumers have to email newsletters, and a newsletter’s ability to generate consumer loyalty, I wanted to bring to your attention some findings from their study. These are items to keep in mind throughout the year as you manage your email campaigns. Also, this was a “newsletter” study, but the takeaways I’ve highlighted can be applied to all kinds of email.

The full executive summary can be found here, but below are some notes that I wanted to call out for your information:

  • Above all, convenience rules. This applies to the subscribe/unsubscribe process as well as the benefit of receiving information via email vs. snail mail.
  • Long-term nature: When it comes to customer relationships, newsletters work their magic over time. This is why it is best to emphasize value-added publishing instead of simply spamming too-frequent newsletters to anybody and everybody you can contact.
  • It’s also critical to start a newsletter with the most important stuff, but the increased use of previews makes it even more important to focus on high-value content at the start of a message, since users are less likely now to look beyond it. (Note that “high-value” is judged based on what’s valuable to the recipients — not on what you feel like promoting today.)
  • A predictable publication frequency that is not too aggressive is usually best, except for newsletters that report breaking news. A regular publication schedule lets users know when to look for the newsletter and reduces the probability that they’ll confuse it with spam and delete it. Set expectations for how often a message will be sent during the sign-up or subscription process.
  • Just because they’re a subscriber doesn’t mean they want to be. They may have just neglected to unsubscribe once they lost interest or they feel bad about unsubscribing, even though they no longer read the newsletters.
  • It’s not uncommon for subscribers to use their spam filters as a shortcut to eliminating newsletters they no longer want. Instead of unsubscribing, which users often view as too cumbersome, they simply flag a message as spam, which prevents it from hitting their inbox in the future. This is a compelling reason to increase the usability of the unsubscribe process: better to lose a subscriber than to be listed as spam.
  • The number of new or unread messages is now 300% higher than it was just four years ago. In addition to competing with your competitors for subscribers, you’ll now need to compete with the rest of your subscribers’ inbox just get your message opened and read. Takeaway: use brief and informative subject lines to get your messages read while the information is fresh.

A newsletter doesn’t necessarily need to imply an email with a few article excerpts and links to more information on a landing page. Newsletters can also include emails that have a single piece of content that are sent on a consistent basis and follow a regular theme (i.e. coupons, tips for using a product, single news item).

The I Send Your Email Facebook page

I’ve taken the leap on Facebook to start a page for my consultancy. Blogging is great for long-form takes on an email topic, but I’m aiming to use this Facebook page as a place for quick thoughts on various email topics. Please “like” the page and join in on the discussions!

The Facebook page is also another way we can stay in touch. I’m on Twitter (@sandisolow) and of course, there’s always email!

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