Study: E-Newsletter Readers Grow Itchy Trigger Fingers

Spam-savvy subscribers have learned to distinguish newsletters from unwanted email, but they’ve also learned to delete such missives if they lack specific information and timeliness, a survey finds.

“In my 2002 email usability study, users had problems distinguishing between newsletters and unsolicited email. So I concluded email newsletters would drown in a sea of spam. But this recent report shows users now can tell the difference,” said Jakob Nielsen of “E-Mail Newsletter Usability, 2nd Edition.”

The independent study, co-authored by Nielsen and Amy Stover of Nielsen Norman Group, surveyed 45 Web users about their email use over 4 weeks in late 2003. Participants in 12 U.S. states, as well as Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Sweden and the UK, subscribed to 345 different newsletters, 101 of which were used in the study.

The California-based consultant now says newsletters have a bright future. However, he warns, it’s critically important to be timely and supply specific information.

“One of the successful newsletters we studied was ‘Huntley’s Morning Note,’ an Australian newsletter. Every morning, just before the Australian stock market opened, it delivers the news of the American stock market,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen also cited a weather newsletter delivered every morning as another example of the kind of timely and specific information that holds users’ attention.

“General information such as that in human interest stories and columns works best in traditional media,” Nielsen said. “E-mail newsletters must leverage the benefits of new media — instant transmission and narrowcasting. You can have a market that’s a tiny segment and be high value for that.”

If newsletters don’t give timely and useful information, the consequences could be deadly, Nielsen said.

Survey results suggest that users have a zero-tolerance attitude for anything that wastes their time. And they often hit the spam button to delete newsletters, Nielsen said, instead of unsubscribing.

“This is bad for email publishers. If too many people say you are sending spam, services like Yahoo and [MSN’s] Hotmail are not going to deliver your newsletters to anyone,” Nielsen said.

This also underscores the importance of making it easy to unsubscribe to newsletters, Nielsen said.

According to the survey, subscribers’ top four peeves were too-frequent mailings, irrelevant content, newsletters for which they had not signed up, and finally, ads that led to sites with pop-ups, Nielsen said.

“If you are going to link your newsletter, make the landing page someplace of interest. But don’t use pop-ups. Make a simple, clean landing page that follows up on your ad,” Nielsen said.

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