UX guide to newsletter sign-up forms

spam museum

Email rules.

In digital marketing we’ve gone through the long-drawn out cycle of everyone thinking email marketing is terrific, to declaring it’s dead – while people who really know their stuff counter with, “don’t be stupid, email is awesome, you’re just not using it properly!” To the place we’re at right now, which is clumsily known as ‘the era of emalightenment’.*

An era in which email will never sublimate itself to the whims of your trash-talk, fly-by-night trends or the whims of a fickle editorial.

And more importantly, an era of double opt-ins and the rejection of crappy bought-in email lists in favour of organically collected, high quality subscribers.

But don’t just take my hot-buttered opinion on the subject, here are some stone cold stats…

Statistics on why email rules

Oh you like ROI, do you? Course you do! Well email marketing’s got bags of the stuff.

Econsultancy’s 2016 Email Marketing Census reveals that 73% of its 614 respondents rate email marketing as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ when it comes to ROI. The highest proportion of any other surveyed channel.

email marketing survey

According to Campaign Monitor, you could expect $44 in ROI for every dollar spent in 2016 on email marketing.

The same research also reveals that email open rates on mobile reached 68% in 2017 (compared to 21% in 2012) and that 174% more conversions are generated by email marketing than social media.

Kissmetrics revealed in its 2017 survey that email is the second most effective channel for marketing, behind the website itself, and also one of the less difficult to execute a marketing plan.

kissmetrics marketing channel survey

And for us here at WhatUsersDo, 25% of our traffic comes from email, and it’s our second biggest acquisition channel.

How we use email marketing at WhatUsersDo

As a business, we rely on email marketing to achieve many business goals. From automated nurturing of new users by telling them how to get the most from our platform, to ad hoc monthly updates where we inform our users of useful events and webinars, as well as platform improvements.

But right now we’ll be concentrating on our other type of email. Our weekly UX content round-up: the Be Good To Your Users newsletter.

It’s just approaching its 40th edition, and we’re pretty damn proud of it. The purpose of the newsletter isn’t primarily to share our own blog content, nor is it to be another sales channel – instead we wanted it to be a round-up of all the best UX content from around the web, that we genuinely enjoy and find useful, that we think our users would get something out of too.

And although we have ramped up our own content publishing on the blog, our policy of sharing the best UX knowledge regardless of the source, is an edict we’ll stick to.

*Cue, unsubtle newsletter sign-up CTA that would normally appear here anyway*

The other purpose of the newsletter is to acquire a readership that genuinely gives a shit about us and be interested in what we have to share.

Which brings us to the next point…

Quality over quantity

If there’s one brilliant thing about the current marketing landscape it’s that we all have a much higher regard for quality rather than quantity. So we truly value the relatively modest, but organically grown and super-loyal list we have – rather than a potentially massive email list that we could have bought-in, but would end up cutting down anyway, thanks to mass unsubscribes, bounce-backs and all the other pitfalls that occur when you start sending unsolicited emails to strangers.

One of the positives of GDPR, coming into force in May 2018, is that people must give their consent freely and unambiguously when it comes to how their data is processed and used – therefore in order receive any email marketing, you have to double opt-in. Which basically means that once you’ve clicked the ‘subscribe me’ CTA on a webpage, you then have to click another confirmation that’s been sent to your email, in order to be subscribed.

email confirmation

This also means that companies who sell email lists en masse are under higher scrutiny, as these emails will be useless and potentially an expensive waste of time.

For evidence, check out this Wired article about UK pub chain Wetherspoon deleting its email list (on purpose) and the fines imposed on a variety of companies for sending marketing emails to people who didn’t consent to receive them.

These companies included Flybe, who were fined £70,000 by the ICO for sending more than 3.3 million emails with the subject line, “Are your details correct?” and Honda, who were fined £13,000 after sending 289,790 emails asking whether customers wanted to receive marketing.

Wired also interviewed Jon Baines, chair of The National Association of Data Protection and Freedom of Information Officers, about the matter:

“On a risk basis, it’s just not worth holding large amounts of customer data which is bringing insufficient value. This could be the case even where the organisation is clear on which customers have given consent to marketing and which haven’t.”

It’s just not worth holding on to an email list that hasn’t proven itself to be totally onboard with receiving your emails.

Basically, all this comes down to is realising the value of building an email list that wants to hear from you.

Which brings me neatly to the next bit…

How do you make sure you’re doing the right thing with email sign-ups?

This would normally be the part of the article where the author would start trundling out some ‘best practice’ advice on obtaining tonnes of valuable newsletter sign-ups, based on third-party advice and well-worn second-hand experience…

HOWEVER as regular readers of this blog should know, there is no such thing as best practice advice, and one company’s ‘awesome tip for obtaining shit-hot email subscribers’ is another company’s ‘smouldering pile of garbage’.

I can however tell you about our own experiences in placing newsletter sign-ups CTAs around our own blog.

As you may have noticed, we have it in two places. One at the top of the blog homepage, and another that we place halfway down a blogpost.

My initial worry was that the one at the top of the homepage would be too obstructive to the blog content or possibly be mistaken for a search box. But after running some tests on the page, my worries were unfounded, as you can see from the videos below…



As most of the blog traffic comes to individual articles rather than the homepage, it’s quite a nice way to capture the attention of people who like that one article and want to explore more by clicking on the home button.

Also bear in mind that we don’t have a pop-up newsletter form. This isn’t, as you may suspect, because of our forthright views about how awful pop-ups are (you have to do what’s right for your own audience) – in fact we actually trialled them. However, the user feedback was too negative, so we abandoned them.

Internally we believed that pop-ups wouldn’t go down very well, I mean, really, who the hell likes pop-ups? But you have to test these things and listen to your audience in order to truly know. I’ve definitely worked for publishers in the past where pop-ups have worked like a charm.

I also moved the newsletter CTA from the bottom of the article, to halfway down the page this month to see if it would drive a few more subscribers. So far the increase in subscribers is in line with an increase in traffic, so it’s difficult to say this early if it has had any genuine affect. What I need to do is test the change, and I’ll share the results in a follow-up post.

The major takeaways from this are, naturally, always test – never assume anything or take best practice advice as sacrosanct.

Another reason to test is because you never know what bug or overlooked problem will surface.

I ran just five remote tests on a newsletter pop-up on my own website, and uncovered two problems with the text entry field not working with Firefox. This is something we had never considered before.

Some sneaky best practice advice… shhhhh

Okay, so after all that I said above about ‘no best practice’, perhaps I was a little too stern, as there are a couple of things that you should definitely keep in mind.

One of them is that you will definitely have to make sure you have a double opt-in process for new subscribers. You also have to keep a record of all your consents, in case you are challenged.

You will also need to obtain consent from email subscribers you already have, whose permissions haven’t been collected and recorded. As this piece from Litmus predicts, expect to be bombarded with a ton of re-permissioning campaigns in the spring of 2018.

Also, for the love of all that’s good and pure, don’t do this…

Sneaky close buttons that aren’t really close buttons.

newsletter sign up trickery

And what we commonly know as heinously judgy manipulinks

gmail manipulink

Nice try.

*Since publishing this article, the term ‘era of enlightenment’ has failed to catch on and I’ve had my membership to the digital marketing writer’s guild** revoked.

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Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher is the Content Marketing Manager of WhatUsersDo. He’s also a filmmaker and the editor of wayward pop culture site Methods Unsound. He used to be the deputy editor of Econsultancy and editor of Search Engine Watch.

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