UX of Email Newsletters

September 9, 2019

More often than not, when we talk about ’creating great user experiences’ we think about the challenges from an internal point of view when we really should consider the user - it’s literally 50% of user experience. While there has been a lot of talk in recent years about the importance of email marketing and the value you can bring through email, it’s still a communication channel that get's very little UX love.

Email as a tool

91% of consumers check their email daily and it beats any other channel in terms of return on investment (ROI). In fact, every dollar spent on email marketing gets you an estimated $40 in return! As a comparison, that number is $22 for SEO and $2 for banner ads (do people actually still run banner ads? 🤔). So while there's already a healthy premise for email marketing, I think there's an enormous possibility to make so much more from it. The key though? Don't treat it as a sales channel - treat it like a brand building opportunity. Any decent brand advocate will tell you that branding is primarily one thing: trust and the story we build our brand on.

Instead, most brands primarily focus on selling. Since sending emails is cheap, they figure they might as well just send one more. What's the harm, right?

I think brands should take a different approach to email marketing: Your email marketing strategy should be to prepare someone to buy from you. Perhaps they just signed up, but are they ready to buy from you? They may not know enough about you to trust you yet. Honestly, you don't enough know anything about them either! Without this knowledge about your new customer, it's impossible to know when they are ready to buy. Think of a physical retail space. When you enter the store, a person will probably approach you, but they probably won't ask you to buy right at that moment - they'll ask questions to better understand what you're looking for: 'How can I help?, Are you looking for anything specific?, Let me know if you need assistance.' But for some reason when it comes to email, our first impulse is to ask them to buy straight away.

As a creator, you need to be thinking about how you can turn subscribers into would-be customers.

This means that the curated pathways you’ve created have a single end: To prepare someone to buy from you.

What you’re looking for are the right signals that show that somebody is sufficiently engaged with what you’re sending, and (ideally) doing something with the information.A better email marketing framework

Onboard users

A lot of companies have blogs. A lot of companies ask readers for their emails. Very few of these companies balance the line of sending the appropriate amount of emails. It's either a lot - like every day - or the opposite which is even worse. Let's say I read an article on your blog and I want to know more. Congratulations, you now have my email. I signed up and then... nothing. Silence. It's like you're asking me to dance and then just walk away.

I'm then left alone for three or four weeks and suddenly your name pops up in my inbox with 'an offer especially for me'. By this time, there's a 95% chance I've forgotten who you are and I'll just delete your email and unsubscribe.

Your most important email: The Onboarding email

Instead, the onboarding email should be the most thought-through email that you send. Why? Because it's guaranteed to go out at a time when a user (read: potential customer) specifically has asked to know more and agreed to have a connection with you.

Unless you're selling Birkin bags, where there's a massive waiting list, you need to know when your customer is ready to buy - not when you're ready to sell.

The onboarding email is your best chance at the one key thing that will help you eventually make a sale: knowing and understanding your customer and the problem they want help solving.

Curate your content. Front-load your best material, and line it up in a way that makes sense for somebody who’s new to your list. Lead them. Your subscribers are often most engaged when they first join your list, so give them an amazing first-run experience.A better email marketing framework

I would love nothing more than for everyone to sign up for my newsletter (where I share content just like this), but I also don't want to bloat my list with signups that will just go on to unsubscribe. Here's my onboarding email and how I handle this issue:

Subject: This is a totally automated email.

Let's get this out of the way. This is an automated email. But... I still wanted to say hello and let you know that I'm a real person. I'm Anton and I am the UX-designer whose website you just visited. I may not know you personally yet, but I'm excited that you're here 💃🏼

You have my word that I'll be respectful of your inbox and only email you when I have some new content or a big announcement that I think you may find interesting.

One favor before I go:
Reply to this email and let me know why you signed up?

You can always connect with me on twitter or by just replying to this email. Until next time my friend, stay awesome.


Here's why it works

First, it uses humor. There's occasionally a fine line between being funny and not being professional, but the premise here is that - this is me, an actual person. Sometimes I'll throw in a joke, but either way, I'll always see to your interests.

Secondly, it's short. People are busy and no one likes a long email especially if it doesn't have to be long.

Third, I'm asking for a favor. It's not a demand or insisting they go to a website to fill out a long form. It's just one question. And while it's just one simple question, most people respond with fairly long answers. They'll tell me why they signed up (what posts they read for example) and tell me about their problems (I'm just getting started in UX and want to learn more, I've just been promoted to UX Lead and not sure what that means).

I'm also giving them an idea of the amount of emails I'll send - it also states one email every two weeks when they sign up. The opening rate for the first onboarding email is over 80% and, after one week, I follow up with another email. I'm not going to post that one here, so you'll have to sign up to see it!

Companies that "get it"

Some companies completely get this. I wanted to highlight some of my favorites:

  • Gosquared (no onboarding sequence) - Their weekly email is one of the few link emails that I'll allow to go straight to my inbox.
  • Paul Jarvis - Master of email. It's no coincidence that Paul, whose list has 15,000+ subscribers and who created the email marketing class, Chimp Essentials, has thought these things through.
  • Val Geisler - I've followed Val on twitter for some time and she's always sharing awesome email tips. Her own onboarding email is funny and she lists #5 things that you probably didn't know about her. The 5th one being that she's on a mission to share what works and what doesn't in email marketing and she wants to share that with a list of 10,000 subscribers. It strikes a great balance between being personal and professional.

What are you favorite email newsletters? Do they all end up directly in your inbox?

UX in email is more than wireframes

As you can see, creating a great user experience is a lot more than just designing wireframes, creating an information architecture, or even doing user journeys — it's everywhere and everything where your user could be interacting with you. So if email provides a channel that's direct, personal, and where they specifically asked for us to contact them - why don't we give this medium more love?

Let me know (through email!) if you want to discuss email marketing with me. I'm always willing to share my knowledge and learn from you too!

Navigating design

I love sharing my experiences working in design and what’ve I’ve learned along the way. Join Navigating design, a comminuty of thousands of designers, developers, and product professionals!

No flywheels, no lead magnets. Unsubscribe whenever you want. Here's what subscribers say.

Great! Just “one more thing”...

You need to confirm your email to confirm your subscription.