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Janet Roberts

Publisher Interview: Mark Hurst, Good Experience
By Janet Roberts

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Once upon a time, "stickiness" was every Web site's goal. Today, smart webmasters are concentrating on a new concept that's rapidly gaining buzzword status: the user experience.

In other words, when people visit a Web site, how easily can they find the information they want or get the help they need?

Mark Hurst has been tracking user experiences on the Web since 1998, when he began his newsletter, now called Good Experience, when he sends out twice a month to 56,000 readers.

In it, he interviews people specializing in online customer service, user experience, site development and the like, reports on user- experience trends, such as Web sites that revamp their basic structure to become more customer-friendly, and passes on a few worthy or fun sites to visit.

A recent study by usability expert Jakob Nielsen said newsletter publishers need to have fast, uncomplicated sign-up procedures.

I expected Mark would have some sharp comment on how Web sites make it easy or difficult to sign up for newsletters, but he surprised me. Read on to see what he says is more important, then send in your comments.

Janet Roberts: What's the background with Good Experience?

Mark Hurst: I published the first issue of the newsletter in September 1998, though it wasn't called "Good Experience" until about a year later.

Since then it's grown to a subscriber list of over 56,000. The newsletter focuses on user experience and is full of commentary, interviews, and links to resources on the topic. User experience is a broad term that encompasses usability, product design, customer service, and anything else that might affect someone's experience of a particular service or product.

JR: What do you do to promote your newsletter to potential subscribers and to make the subscribing process as easy as possible?

MH: The best way to get readers is to write a newsletter worth reading. Despite my focus on usability, I have to say that in this case, content trumps usability. If your newsletter is good enough (that is, useful or enjoyable or thought-provoking), subscribers will tell their friends to join, and they'll figure out the interface.

On the other hand, if you have a great sign-up interface but the newsletter is just a press release for your company, no one will read it.

I don't think that paying to promote a list is a great idea. A good newsletter grows slowly, organically, by the word-of-mouth it gets from enthusiastic readers. If you have to pay someone to hawk your newsletter like a used car or something, it's probably not going to come across as a quality publication.

JR: What are some of the things you see online publishers doing that interfere with a customer's experience? Can you think of any sites that do a really good job of getting people to sign up for newsletters?

MH: Again, it comes down to the content. A few months ago, just to check out the competition, I signed up for the newsletter written by one of the leading consulting firms in customer experience. Surely this company would write a newsletter that created a good experience for its subscribers!

Wrong. Every issue is nothing but links to buy research reports, or tickets to their upcoming seminars. It's like reading the coupon section in the Sunday paper - there's no content there. No personality, no value, no use to it (unless you really want to buy their reports every month).

In Good Experience, on the other hand, I always lead with a long piece (800 words or so) that I think readers will find valuable. For example, I've recently interviewed the top usability practitioners at some of the top Web sites, like Google and Amazon.

Below that, I do sell tickets to an upcoming conference, but the conference pitch is sandwiched between two pieces that are genuinely valuable.

JR: Do you pay much attention to newsletter promotion and subscription processes as you move around the Web?

MH: Not really. I guess there are some common ways for people to subscribe to newsletters - typing their email address into a form, or sending a blank email to a subscribe address but there's little difference in how well those sign-ups work - they're all fine. The real difference, as I said before, is whether the newsletter is worth reading at all.

Mark is the founder and president of the ecommerce consulting firm Creative Good. You can read more about Mark and his newsletter at his Web site. The current issue is here.

Ezine-Tips for January 23, 2003

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