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RSS Feeds Are No Substitute for Email Newsletters According to Nielsen Norman Group; Data From New Eyetracking Study Provides Marketers With Evidence of Users' Reading Behaviors
[June 12, 2006]

RSS Feeds Are No Substitute for Email Newsletters According to Nielsen Norman Group; Data From New Eyetracking Study Provides Marketers With Evidence of Users' Reading Behaviors

SAN FRANCISCO --(Business Wire)-- June 12, 2006 -- The fact that RSS feeds are immune to the spam filters that sometimes plague email newsletters does not make them a better distribution medium for marketing communications, as hailed by some. According to new research from usability expert Jakob Nielsen, RSS feeds prove to be a cold medium in comparison to email newsletters, which do a far better job at building a relationship between a company and its customers. "Email Newsletter Usability," co-authored by Nielsen and user experience specialist Amy Schade of Nielsen Norman Group, presents new data gathered using eyetracking technology, which precisely shows how people interact with RSS feeds and email newsletters.

Nielsen Norman Group researchers found that people today are extremely fast-paced when processing their inbox and reading newsletters. The average time allocated to a newsletter after opening it is just 51 seconds. The predominant behavior is to scan the text, with only 19% of newsletters being read fully. Eyetracking observations of users reading RSS news feeds showed that people scan the headlines and blurbs in feeds even more ruthlessly than they scan newsletters.

"When your message appears in somebody's RSS newsreader, it has a diminutive footprint that's rubbing shoulders with a flood of headlines from other sites," said Jakob Nielsen, co-founder and principal of Nielsen Norman Group, "Newsletters are a much more powerful medium than RSS feeds, and I would not be surprised if it turns out that companies make 10 times as much money from each newsletter subscriber."

This is the third study Nielsen Norman Group has conducted since 2002 on email newsletters and the first using eyetracking. This time, researchers tested 117 newsletters read by 42 users. Recommendations for producing successful email newsletters include:

Avoid the spam filter by making it easy for people to unsubscribe to newsletters they no longer wish to receive. In its first email usability study, Nielsen Norman Group observed that it took people an average of 3:05 minutes to unsubscribe from an email newsletter. Now, it takes 1:38 minutes, posting a productivity gain of 89%. When people can easily unsubscribe to a newsletter, they are less likely to resort to using a spam-blocking feature, which can cause legitimate newsletters to get blacklisted.

Design newsletters to facilitate scanning. Today, skimming is reading. Designing for users who skim rather than read is essential for a newsletter's survival. It's important for websites as well, but it's 50% more important for newsletters according to the firm's research.

"Competition for the kind of customer attention and loyalty that email newsletters build is becoming increasingly intense as users get swamped more than ever by online information sources, including RSS feeds," said Amy Schade, user experience specialist at Nielsen Norman Group, "Right now, 69% of users say they look forward to receiving at least one newsletter. Very few other promotional efforts can claim this degree of customer buy-in. Following our design guidelines will help marketers protect this invaluable asset."

"Email Newsletter Usability -- 165 Guidelines for Newsletter Subscription, Content, Account Maintenance and RSS News Feeds Based on Usability Studies" is available to download from the Nielsen Norman Group website at for $398.

About Nielsen Norman Group

Nielsen Norman Group ( is a user-experience research firm that advises companies on how to succeed through human-centered design of products and services. Nielsen Norman Group principals Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman and Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini are each world-renowned experts in usability and human use of technology. Besides authoring books and evangelizing about user experience, they and the other user-experience specialists at Nielsen Norman Group offer high-level strategic consultation on usability of websites, consumer products, software designs and anything else that needs to be easy-to-use. Media contact: Darcy Provo, Antenna Group,, 415-977-1920.

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