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"There are a lot of wonderful things about the Web, but it just sits there and waits for people to visit. A newsletter develops a relationship with your correspondent."

Jakob Nielsen

Articles on e-newsletters

The key to email: a two-second grab
Timely, focused online newsletter a valuable relationship builder

«« The key to email: a two-second grab

To communicate online, and particularly in email, you have to overcome the greatest dilemma of online communication: the online world has infinite space and infinitely small attention spans.

Content creators feel they can write at inordinate length, putting into the message not only their key idea but all the fine detail they think is important. After all, they think to themselves, it's not as if all this stuff has to be crammed onto a poster or even into a brochure.

Yet content recipients sit at the other end, making brutal, two-second decisions about what to look at and what to ignore, based on viewing no more than 20 words of that content. Even if they read, they skim. Or they save the email for another day, making it even less likely they will ever see its full content.

The result: the sender's writing a booklet, but the recipient's treating it like a roadside billboard. You're writing 1000 words. They're reading 10 - on a good day.

Why is this particularly true of email? Because the stakes for the user are so high here. Many email users are now trying to deal with much higher spam volumes than ever before. For these people, email has lost its innocence. They don't have time to linger over email; they want to empty their inbox and get on with it. You probably already operate in this brutal fashion. So does everyone else.

All this stands out in the email studies from the Nielsen Norman group, whose most famous principal, Jakob Nielsen, has just been in Australia holding seminars about - among other things - the challenges of email communication. Over the past decade no one else has been so accurate in predicting trends in the evolution of internet media. And Nielsen Norman's published studies are models of clarity.

Nielsen Norman first published a major study of email newsletter usability in 2002. Reading it, you saw anew how users of the time treated email newsletters like old-fashioned postal letters.

"Newsletters feel personal because they arrive in your inbox," said the study. "You have an ongoing relationship with them. In contrast, websites are things you glance at when you need to get something done or find the answer to a specific question."

Nielsen Norman discovered users who didn't want to unsubscribe from newsletters because "it doesn't feel good to sever the relationship".

Nielsen Norman has updated its study and concluded that the email audience is getting still tougher and smarter. More people can tell the difference between email and spam; more people use spam filters to get rid of unwanted emails (with anti-spam technology, that means users are often reporting innocent newsletters as spam); they are concentrating more on email that helps them get something done.

Most importantly, users are weighing up email messages in even less time, scanning rather than reading. "In our first study, 23 per cent of the newsletters were read thoroughly. In our second study, two years later, only 11 per cent of the newsletters were read thoroughly," Nielsen Norman reports.

Email newsletter authors, and anyone else writing messages from organisations to individuals, must take a clear lesson from this: people are throwing away most of your information, and you can't fight the trend. Craft your email newsletters to sum up your message in subject lines, FROM addresses, opening lines and headings - the stuff Jakob Nielsen calls microcontent.

Yet the company remains confident of the future of the best newsletters, although that is a future of two-second decisions by users.

Users have highly emotional reactions to newsletters. This is in strong contrast to studies of website usability, where users are usually much more oriented towards functionality. Even a website that you visit daily will feel like a tool where you simply want to get in and get out.

Newsletters need to be smooth and easy: they must be seen to reduce the burdens of modern life. Even if free, the cost in e-mail clutter must be paid for by being helpful and relevant to users.

««Timely, focused online newsletter a valuable relationship builder

(Nielsen Norman Group)

Just two years ago, the average email user was confused and frustrated when differentiating between spam and the then-emerging category of marketing newsletters.

The Nielsen Norman Group recently released their report, Email Newsletter Usability, 2nd Edition.

"Newsletters provide extremely targeted information," said Jakob Nielsen, who co-wrote the study. "The message travels from one person to another. It's not like TV, where one message goes to millions of people. Instead, this is very focused."

Newsletters can be sloppy, indulgent affairs that allow you to blow off steam, but these efforts won't be successful. Nielsen said that a worthwhile newsletter needs to be informative, convenient and timely.

A short explanation of each: It needs to provide unique information that reflects a particular insight. It needs to be clearly written, brief and to the point, offering the ability to scan quickly to glean needed data. And it needs to offer information at a time when it can be used.

For instance, a stock-tips newsletter needs to be daily, while the aforementioned Bremerton Basset crew probably needs to roll something out only every few weeks.

Writing newsletter headlines is an art. Here, you have about 60 characters to say exactly what it is all about. Puns and obscure references are out, unless you would rather look smooth than serve readers.

"People will open your newsletter if you've been good in the past," Nielsen said. "But there is always the feeling of 'what have you done for me lately?' A newsletter has to fight for its right to be in the inbox.

Newsletters are cheap and easy to produce. If a certain direction isn't working, it can change overnight, rather than taking all the steps that it may take to redesign a magazine or a newspaper. There are a variety of options: Plain text or HTML. (Nielsen suggests offering both) Complete text or a digest with links. Advertising or no advertising. Free or paid.

Oddly enough, customers view these categories in much the same way. Free is not such a compelling value proposition, as there is plenty of free stuff online already. So any newsletter needs to maintain constant relevance, whether free or not. (As for the ads, Nielsen said that readers don't mind a short word from the sponsor. And precise targeting is great for the advertiser.)

"Newsletters offer people a way to connect with their audience," Nielsen said.

"There are a lot of wonderful things about the Web, but it just sits there and waits for people to visit. A newsletter develops a relationship with your correspondent."

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