Just two years ago, the average e-mail user was confused and frustrated when differentiating between spam and the then-emerging category of marketing newsletters.
Even if people requested a regular communiqué from, for instance, the Bremerton Basset Club, they may have forgotten they made the request and perceived the communication as an intrusion. Or perhaps they found it less interesting than promised. Either way, this supposedly valued information found its way into the spam pile.
Today, average users are better able to make the differentiation. As a result, publishing an online newsletter is an excellent way to promote your business, spread a message or just sound off.
These are the findings of the Nielsen Norman Group, whose recent report, "Email Newsletter Usability, 2nd Edition," discusses the evolution in detail.
"Newsletters provide extremely targeted information," said Jakob Nielsen, who co-wrote the study. "The message travels from one person to another. It's not like TV, where one message goes to millions of people. Instead, this is very focused."
Newsletters can be sloppy, indulgent affairs that allow you to blow off steam, but these efforts won't be successful. Nielsen said that a worthwhile newsletter needs to be informative, convenient and timely.
A short explanation of each: It needs to provide unique information that reflects a particular insight. It needs to be clearly written, brief and to the point, offering the ability to scan quickly to glean needed data. And it needs to offer information at a time when it can be used.
For instance, a stock-tips newsletter needs to be daily, while the aforementioned Bremerton Basset crew probably needs to roll something out only every few weeks.
Writing newsletter headlines is an art. Here, you have about 60 characters to say exactly what it is all about. Puns and obscure references are out, unless you would rather look smooth than serve readers.
"People will open your newsletter if you've been good in the past," Nielsen said. "But there is always the feeling of 'what have you done for me lately?' A newsletter has to fight for its right to be in the inbox."
Newsletters are cheap and easy to produce, and can turn on a dime. If a certain direction isn't working, it can change overnight, rather than taking all the steps that it may take to redesign a magazine or a newspaper. There are a variety of options: Plain text or HTML. (Nielsen suggests offering both.) Complete text or a digest with links. Advertising or no advertising. Free or paid.
Oddly enough, customers view these categories in much the same way. Free is not such a compelling value proposition, as there is plenty of free stuff online already. So any newsletter needs to maintain constant relevance, whether free or not. (As for the ads, Nielsen said that readers don't mind a short word from the sponsor. And precise targeting is great for the advertiser.)
"Newsletters offer people a way to connect with their audience," Nielsen said. "There are a lot of wonderful things about the Web, but it just sits there and waits for people to visit. A newsletter develops a relationship with your correspondent."