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Janet Roberts

Ezine Usability
By Janet Roberts

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How do email newsletters stack up with its readers? A new study by Web-usability expert Jakob Nielsen finally gives publishers some solid performance statistics.

The findings reinforce the best practices of email publishing that you've read about over the years in Ezine-Tips. However, this is the first systematic study of email-newsletter publishing I've seen.

The gist, from Nielsen's Alertbox announcement list:

"Users have highly emotional reactions to newsletters which feel much more personal than Web sites. In usability testing, success rates were high for subscribe and unsubscribe tasks, but users were frustrated by newsletters that demanded too much of their time."

Study participants reviewed 10 free newsletters, representing a broad range of email publishing: daily and weekly news ezines, company announcements, Web updates and general business and consumer news. The list includes, The Economist, PDA-maker Handspring,,, plus "The Daily Plant" by the New York City Parks and Recreation Department.

If I were to summarize all of Nielsen's findings, I'd end up with the dreaded "wall of text" that his study says puts people off ezines. The study also examined only free newsletters. You'd likely see different metrics for paid newsletters. Still, here are some of the more startling findings:

  • About 27 percent of newsletters in the study never were opened. Readers read 23 percent of the newsletters all the way through. They skimmed or read partly the other newsletters.

  • Subscription functions worked the best of all functions on a Web site; yet, "newsletters lost 22% of potential subscribers due to usability difficulties in their subscription processes and designs."

  • Readers could subscribe successfully 78 percent of the time. Although that's higher than the average success rate of other Web functions, it's still not great. "A newsletter with 50,000 subscribers could add an estimated 14,000 subscribers on average if everybody could operate its subscription interface correctly."

  • Although readers could unsubscribe successfully 92 percent of the time, many didn't do it. Some didn't want to break the emotional connection, while others didn't even try, either because they thought it wouldn't work or because they applied the don't-respond-to-spam rule to newsletters.

  • Subscribing took an average 5 minutes to complete. That's too long, the report says. It should take no more than 2 minutes for free newsletters.

You can buy the 186-page report, complete with design guidelines, but if the fee is a little steep -- $195 for a single download; $498 to download multiple copies -- read the two summaries:

In an upcoming Ezine-Tip, I'll feature some resources that share similar information but without the stastics or price tag.

Ezine-Tips for September 30, 2002

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