E-Mail Newsletters Can Hold Clients

Studies show periodic messages, if managed correctly, can create emotional bond with customers

By: By Joe Dysart

Artfully designed and managed company newsletters have the potential to create a strong, emotional bond with a customer that is not easily severed, according to a study recently released by Nielsen Norman Group, based in Freemont, Calif. “Newsletters feel personal because they arrive in your inbox - you have an ongoing relationship with them,” said Jakob Nielsen, an NNG principal. “The positive emotional aspect of newsletters is that they can create much more of a bond between user and company than a Web site can.” Surprisingly, the study found that many subscribers are reluctant to “unsubscribe” to a newsletter, even when they no longer read it regularly. The reason: many subscribers say they develop an emotional attachment to a newsletter that they are reluctant to sever. The NNG study comes on the heels of a similar report released by DoubleClick, an Internet market research firm, which found that consumers are much more likely to respond positively to email than to more traditional advertising, such has direct mail. Specifically, DoubleClick found that recipients opened 37.3 percent of all promotional e-mail sent to them during the third quarter of 2002. E-mail about business products and services were read most often, 47.3 percent of the time, while travel and consumer products and services followed at 42.5 percent. Perhaps an even more telling statistic: 8.5 percent of recipients used a link embedded in the e-mail to get information on a product or service. The NNG study, “E-mail Newsletter Usability,” distills information about scores of successful newsletters into 79 design rules and strategies. Among them are: Realize Going In, You’re Playing With a Powerful Medium: While newsletters can create a bond, “the negative aspect is that usability problems have much stronger impact on the customer relationship than they normally do.” Indeed, the study found that badly organized sign-up pages cost newsletters 22 percent of their potential subscribers. Don’t Waste Potential Subscribers’ Time: “On average across the newsletters we studied, the subscribe process took five minutes, much too long for the simple functionality that’s involved,” the report said, adding that only fee-based subscriptions should take longer than two minutes. Red Star Travel of Seattle takes a simple approach. All that’s required to receive its e-mail newsletter is an e-mail address. Cruise Shop Travel, based in Albuquerque, N.M., has the same minimal requirement, as does Travel Ladies (www.travelladies.com). Don’t Be Overly Nosy: Jeanne Jennings, a design consultant and columnist, recommends asking for just five to seven pieces of information on a subscription page. Don’t Make a Subscriber Feel Like a Target: Jennings said that asking for lots of information will make a registrant wary. “People will either abandon the page without subscribing or lie. Neither of these furthers your cause,” she said. Be Honest About How You’ll Deal With a Subscriber: “Include elements that increase registration rates, such as links to a sample issue and your privacy policy,” Jennings said. She also recommends summarizing your privacy policy in a sentence or two and posting it on the subscription page. Both Airfares.com of Phoenix and Azumano Travel of Portland, Ore., clearly assure visitors that personal information will not be resold. Deliver on Your Newsletter’s Promise: Even though virtually all company e-mail newsletters are free, they still must deliver on their promises to the subscriber, according to Nielsen. “The cost in clutter must be paid for by being helpful and relevant to users and by communicating these benefits in a few characters in the subject line,” Nielsen said. Keep It Simple: While you’d think the simplicity maxim would be mind-numbingly obvious, NNG researchers found that 27 percent of all newsletters were never opened. “In subjective comments, users basically said that newsletters are good if they cut down the time it takes users to accomplish something, or if they are quick reads that don’t feet frivolous,” he said. Publish Regularly: “A regulator publication schedule lets users know when to look for the newsletter and reduces the probability that it will be deleted,” Nielsen said. Travel the Rainbow, based in Corrales, N.M., publishes a weekly e-newsletter to disseminate sales information and last-minute deals. Design for All Major E-mail Readers: Test subjects were distributed almost evenly among AOL, Hotmail, Netscape Mail, Outlook and Yahoo! Mail, Neilsen said, adding, “It’s also common to find people using Eudora, Lotus Notes and a broad variety of mainframe systems.” Given that each of these e-mail readers has a different way of displaying newsletter content and of filtering spam, Nielsen recommends previewing your newsletter design on each system before launching. Don’t Play Games With the ‘Unsubscribe’ Function: Understandably, companies that amass legions of subscribers are reluctant to say goodbye. Consequently, many are tempted to make unsubscribing an arduous process. Bad move, Nielsen said. Not only will it irritate people, you’ll continue to irritate them each time your unwanted newsletter shows up in their inbox. “Users are substantially more critical of a slow unsubscribe process,” he said. “Once you want out, you want out quickly.” n Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Thousand Oaks, Calif.