Two seconds to deletion: the new reality of email newsletters
By David Walker (Google profile)
To communicate online, and particularly in email, you have to overcome the greatest dilemma of online communication. That dilemma: 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 sub-points and fine detail that 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. So they sit dropping most of their incoming messages down the pit with their delete key. You probably already operate in this brutal fashion. The point is: 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 has been so accurate in predicting trends in the evolution of Internet media. And Nielsen Norman's published studies (available at nngroup.com, for a price) 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." Indeed, Nielsen Norman discovered users who didn't want to unsubscribe from newsletters because "it doesn't feel good to sever the relationship".
A year later, the group produced a new email study - not about newsletters, but about confirmation messages, the email you get, for instance, after an Internet retailer ships an order to you. Not surprisingly, users took a less romantic approach to these emails. The 2003 confirmation email study showed users judging organisations' emails harshly: marking them down for typos and other sloppiness, zipping past fluffy marketing statements, and demanding relevance and thoroughness. "Any perceived lack of information (incomplete information or unanswered questions) was perceived as inaccuracy," the researchers reported.
And now, in 2004, Nielsen Norman has updated its original 2002 email newsletter 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 today's anti-spam technology, that means users are often reporting innocent newsletters as spam.
- They're concentrating more on email that helps them get something done. "There is pretty much a 'what have you done for me lately' phenomenon at play, where newsletters have to justify their space in the inbox on a daily basis," the researchers conclude.
- Most importantly, they're weighing up email messages in even less time, scanning rather than reading. "In our first study, 23% of the newsletters were read thoroughly. In our second study, two years later, only 11% of the newsletters were read thoroughly," Nielsen Norman reports. Even less book; even more billboard.
Email newsletter authors, and anyone 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. And make it incredibly easy for users to unsubscribe - because that's the best way to avoid having some software system decide you're a spammer.
The full study, available at nngroup.com, contains enormous detail at a relatively affordable price - around $A450. You can see a summary here.
Back in 2002, Nielsen Norman were unsure whether email newsletters would survive the rising tide of spam. After watching their 2004 users, they're more confident of the medium's future. "Email newsletters are so powerful that the best of them do have a future, despite ever-more adverse conditions," they say. But that future is a future of two-second decisions by users with their fingers poised over the delete key.