Study: Email Newsletters Too Long, Too Frequent

by , Feb 18, 2004, 12:00 AM
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When the Nielsen Norman Group took its first look at email newsletters two years ago, the research firm found that users were having difficulty distinguishing between asked-for missives and spam. The result, predictably, was that many newsletters met an ignoble fate at the bottom of the recycle bin, while the marketers who sponsored them gnashed their teeth in frustration about inbox clutter.

With Tuesday's debut of "Email Newsletter Usability, 2nd Edition," however, the company found a vastly changed e-marketing landscape. The good: consumers are getting better at distinguishing between spam and legit opt-in newsletters, most of which have forged a strong emotional bond with their recipients. The bad: many newsletters are still arriving too often and running too long, compromising their effectiveness and discoloring consumers' opinions of the sender.

"It's still stressful for most people to deal with their inbox," says NNG principal Jakob Nielsen. "But the best newsletters have a connection that overcomes that problem. It's still a great relationship-building medium."

According to Nielsen, the major difference between the newsletter landscape two years ago and today is a relative increase in consumer sophistication. Then, newsletter recipients didn't differentiate between commercial and non- commercial email, and were eager to sign up for joke-of-the-day notes and anything else they could get their hands on. NNG predicted that newsletters faced somewhat of a tenuous future, primarily because the firm anticipated they would be buried by the oncoming avalanche of commercial e-mailings.

Now, with consumers getting a better grip on the spam problem (with a healthy assist from their Internet Service Providers), they have started to differentiate between "need to know" messages and "nice to know" ones. So while the aforementioned joke-of-the-day deliveries may be extinct relatively soon, newsletters viewed as essential by recipients are thriving. "The ones that make users think 'right now, I'm getting value out of this' have created a connection too strong to be broken by email overload," Nielsen says.

According to the study, the three essential ingredients for any newsletter are frequency, length (alternately dubbed by Nielsen as "scanability"), and convenience. And while this isn't exactly top-of-the-fold news to any savvy e-marketer, Nielsen remains amazed by the number of marketers who risk consumer wrath by transmitting densely packed missives on an almost daily basis.

"Layout and writing style are so important," he explains. "Anything that makes the consumer feel like reading it is going to be work will get deferred. The predominant behavior for newsletters is skimming," Translation: keep it short and clean, or risk having your marketing messages consigned to inbox purgatory.

The study also found that many newsletter senders commit a potentially fatal mistake in making it difficult for recipients to unsubscribe. Although there's a school of thought among marketing managers that they shouldn't let consumers out of their clutches without a fight, Nielsen says this tactic engenders considerable resentment. "Newsletters are a relationship-based medium," he explains. "If [a newsletter] starts to annoy me, every time it arrives I'm reminded how much I hate that company."

Along these lines, the study found that consumers have found a way of dealing with those newsletters that make them jump through hoops to unsubscribe: reporting them to their ISPs as spam. "That's basically death on the Internet nowadays," Nielsen notes.

For the study, Nielsen Norman asked consumers in 12 U.S. states as well as Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Sweden, and the U.K. to examine 101 email newsletters. It was conducted over a period of four weeks, and used a diary reporting methodology.

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