Not Evangelism

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

User experience and email communications

Get your email communication strategy right

I've recently started getting email from Southern Railway, a train operating company serving the south of England. This is odd not least because I don't live in the area they serve, and I rarely travel to it or through it. In fact, I'm sure the only reason why I'm receiving the email is because I used their service to travel to UX Brighton earlier this year.

And this is one of the problems with Southern Railway's email communication strategy: it's not clear why I'm receiving the email. There's no indication I'm getting these messages because I signed up to some information service.

There are other problems too: when I received the first email, from "Southern", I didn't recognise it.  Indeed, Southern is their trading name, but they also use Southern Railway (three times in the email above) and their website is  There's no indication of why I'm getting the email, or how to stop receiving them. In short, it feels like mass-marketing, spam.

Here, then, are some guidelines for improving the user experience of your email communications.

Be clear about who you are

My mail program reports the sender of the email simply as "Southern". Although Southern is the trading name of the company, without context (such as in the From line of the email), it's meaningless. My first guess was Southern Electric, an energy company I used to be a customer of.

Don't assume your users will have a preview pane that might give them a clue about who you are, or that you will get any more screen space than a scan of the From and Subject lines. Users are busy, selective and suspicious. Don't give them a reason to ignore or delete your email, or flag it as spam. You've lost them before they've even opened your email.

Be clear about why your readers are receiving the email

Include a statement about why the users are getting the email. Reassure them that you're not spamming them. Users are busy; they might not remember signing up with you for your service. They might not have noticed the checkbox that your website helpfully defaulted for them. Most of all, users may suspect that you are spamming them, and once lost, trust is mightily difficult to rebuild.

It can be as simple as a statement like "You're receiving this email because you signed up for news updates on our website".

Be personal: use their name

The email above is addressed "Dear Passenger", making me feel like they don't know me, don't care about me. If I signed up for information, I'm pretty sure they've got my name. It's not much of a stretch to include it in the email.

Include the email address (or username) the user signed up with

This is also trivially simple to do. And it adds another layer of trust, another prompt to the user that they really did sign up with you. The worst thing that can happen (as in this case) is that the users do click through to your website, and are prompted for an email address or username that they can't remember.

Make it clear how to unsubscribe from the email

Every email should include a direct link to unsubscribing. It should be trivially easy for users to do so. If users want to unsubscribe but can't, they often end up blocking your emails, which impacts on your bounce rate and ends up costing your business money.

One-click unsubscribe is a big deal. It builds confidence. Remember that when users remove themselves from your contact list, it's still a contact point. Make it work for you. Let your users remember you for the right reasons.

In the Southern Railway email, there's no mention of how to unsubscribe from future emails. When I couldn't see anything in the email about why I was receiving the email, I then looked for some words around "managing my communication preferences" or "unsubscribing from these notifications". Nothing.

In the end, I resorted to clicking through to the website, where I was prompted to sign in. I guessed at a username and password and got lucky. But then couldn't then find any information about communication or contact preferences.

Result: frustration. Annoyance. Lack of trust.

In short: make life easy and obvious for your users

How many problems were there with this email, and the website I arrived at? Bad addressing, unclear authorship, poor messages, no easy way out. I only got as far as I did because I'm interested in the subject and I'm writing an article about user experience and email communications. Would another user get this far?

What do your email newsletters say about you? Are they as polished as your website? What could you do to make your email communications better for your users?

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