More usable email campaigns, by design

February 13, 2008

imediaconnection.comNearly all direct marketing email campaigns can benefit from bringing in oft-overlooked user experience principles. See how it can be done.

Each time you send someone an email, you create a little user experience for them. Yet most companies don’t involve their user experience teams in the creation of email marketing campaigns. What’s more, email newsletters or sales messages are almost never usability tested. What’s happening here?

Of course, for the most part, the success of an email campaign depends on the offer, the supporting content and the targeting of the messages. These things are not typically driven by usability concerns — in most organizations, they are (appropriately) owned by people with a direct marketing background. And for the most part, the best way to optimize email campaigns over time is by paying close attention to performance metrics such as open rates, clickthrough rates and conversion rates — not the kind of data you could get from running a usability study.

Usability still matters
It seems that email is essentially a direct marketing competency — not something companies typically assign to their “user experience” group. Yet, I have almost never seen an email campaign that could not be improved by making it more sensitive to user experience principles. Many messages are still too wide to display comfortably in the recipient’s chosen email client — the kind of problem that may be invisible in tracking statistics but is easily discoverable with just three hours of usability testing. In other cases, key contents are essentially invisible or impossible to scan quickly. Worst of all, users are still receiving too many messages that are irrelevant to them.

The business case for user-centered email design
While it may seem too simple to be a big priority, the design of your emails definitely represents an opportunity to communicate with customers and prospects, and to become a smarter and more sensitive marketer. This is especially true for companies that run multiple or integrated campaigns, or those that send out various types of status or confirmation messages in the same time span.

In addition, many cherished metrics are no longer as reliable as they used to be. Open rate is now a rough measure, currently used only to confirm that a severe problem has not occurred, such as when all or most of your messages are blocked by spam filters. In the absence of perfect information, it makes sense to consider usability.

Making your newsletters and other email campaigns more usable will not only help you squeeze out better results across all the relevant metrics, it will also lead to other benefits, such as the degree to which people trust your brand and find it relevant.

Making email messages more usable
Here are some simple techniques and principles borrowed from the world of usability and experience design that you can apply to the creation of your email campaigns.

Display system status
Let’s start with the sign up process itself. A basic attribute of any usable software product or website is its ability to display system status accurately. In other words, it should tell you what’s happening when you ask it to do something. Usable products don’t leave the user guessing about whether some process failed behind the scenes. Yet dozens of large companies don’t clearly communicate what just happened when you opt into their email campaigns. In such cases, the user has no way to know if the sign up process was successful, so they sometimes repeat the process, compounding the mistake.

Enable user control and freedom
This is another “ancient” usability principle (or heuristic) that was first used to evaluate desktop software, but also holds true for the emails your company sends. Are your users in control? Do you tell them how many emails they will receive if they subscribe and give them some way to manage this? Can they immediately unsubscribe, or do you put them through annoying confirmation loops? Can they easily scan to the content they value and skip the rest? Can they freely reply to your messages by hitting the reply button, or do they have to take extra steps to contact you on your terms.

Respect the context of use
Email marketers have historically been too insensitive of their recipients’ real context of use. What’s the context of use for receiving an email in 2008? In most cases, it’s about rushing to dig through a mountain of spam. Jupiter Research recently projected that spending on email will surpass $2 billion by 2012, so any single message is just a tiny part of that growing mountain. Yet many marketers continue to focus on creating fancy business rules based on trend analysis, pumping out millions of increasingly irrelevant messages. A few hours of interviews with real life users might just bring a fresh blast of reality into their planning processes

 Amazon.com’s subject line gets the story across even if you’re too busy to open the actual message.

User-driven design elements only
Once you have something relevant to say, make sure not to hide it. There’s no need for a tall header area or a standardized set of links at the top of your message. Remember, no one subscribes to a campaign in order to be reminded about links to standard website sections. The recipient’s task is to determine whether this message has something relevant for them. User-driven design elements begin with anything that helps the user answer that question quickly and without having to think too much.

Behavioral targeting?
You don’t always need deep analysis of trends data to target your messages. User experience designers know how to pay close attention to where the user is within the overall workflow. Consider a customer who has just purchased a gift. It’s probably not a good idea to waste their time with messages about the product, unless you can figure out the next occasion of the gift. The recipient, on the other hand, might be a fan of your product and a good candidate for a follow-up survey or offer.

Don’t just track people, interview them
The reality today is that people scanning their inboxes are in a serious hurry to separate what’s relevant to them from the spam. It makes little difference how excited the recipient was when they initially opted into your campaign. At this point, chances are they are not nearly as excited, because yours is one of a dozen emails they’re scanning through. Remember that people use email more than they search, or conduct any other online activity, and much of this time is already wasted on filtering out spam. The result is that receiving additional email messages, even from a fascinating non-spammer such as yourself, may be less a cause for celebration than it might have been in the pre-spam era.

This ad for the New Yorker goes to a standard Conde Nast ad that barely
mentions the New Yorker. A quick usability study would have shown just
how confusing this is for many users.

But you won’t find out about this by looking at your tracking figures. You might see your open rates declining, but you won’t know how all those unopened emails you keep sending are affecting your brand — unless you interview a few recipients and watch them check their emails.

Here, I suggest you observe five test users in action and find out for yourself about their habits and preferences as they hunt for relevance. Then apply what you’ve learned to your next email campaign. Ideally, email should be considered as a basic piece of the customer experience, and evaluated as part of website usability studies. These suggestions should get you on track.


One comment

  1. This is a great post! Thanks for setting out the specific examples. Anyone in e-mail marketing can really benefit from integrating the user experience into every campaign. Well done. We’ve featured it on our weekly favorite links post. Hope you get some readers from our link! (http://rrwdatabasemarketing.blogspot.com)

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