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Jakob Nielsen has been busy looking at the emails of the three major UK parties, rating the Conservatives' emails best for usability, with the Lib Dems in second, and Labour third, much like the state of the polls at the moment. 

In his latest Alertbox post, the usability expert rates the emails for sign-up pages, content, subscription management, and subject lines. 

I was due to follow up on my previous post about the three main parties' email strategy, so I've looked at Nielsen's findings, as well as some of my own... 

Email sign-ups

This is something I looked at a few weeks ago, finding that the sign-up links for all three parties could be made clearer, especially in the case of the Conservatives, whose email opt in link was well below the fold.

All three, though forms were kept simple, missed the opportunity to ask for any extra data which may have helped them to target emails more effectively, such as age, income etc. 

Nielsen points out that the Labour sign up page violates several usability guidelines, including putting too many distractions on the page, in this case links to Twitter and Facebook pages. 

The Lib Dems are criticised for the email confirmation page, which Nielsen says is one of the worst confirmation pages he has seen. This is due to the wording of the confirmation message, 'your details have been submitted', and the fact that it is placed well down the page underneath other text asking users to sign up for email news. 

Email frequency

Nielsen seems to have gotten completely different amounts of emails than I did when I signed up in February. In my case, I received six in two weeks from the Conservatives, and none from the other parties, though both have since sent plenty. 

In Nielsen's case, and this is probably due to the proximity of the election, he received three from Labour, four from the Tories, and nine from the Liberal Democrats. 

While the number of Lib Dem emails in this case may be bordering on spamming, Nielsen suggests that the other two parties may be sending too few. 

Subject lines

Here's a sample of email subject lines from my inbox: 

It seems that lots of different people from each party are emailing me, but sometimes I don't necessarily know who they are, and others might not either. 

I know who Hague, Blunkett, Mandelson and others are, and everyone must have heard of Nick Clegg by now even if they didn't before.

However, more obscure names (to me anyway) like Douglas Alexander (Labour) or Michael Gove (Conservative) don't mean anything to me, and could have me thinking that they are spam messages, especially with vague subject lines like 'answer time'. 

I didn't know who Chris Fox was either, but at least the from field includes the party name. 

As Nielsen points out, the subject lines don't always provide enough of an 'information scent' to indicate the content. In the screenshot above, lines like 'answer time',  'keep the momentum going' and 'what can you do tonight?' aren't as clear as they could be. 


While the Lib Dem and Tory emails use plenty of images and even embed videos, the Labour emails are criticised for being too text-heavy. 

Lib Dem: 



According to Nielsen: 

The Lib Dems newsletter is the most scannable and the only one truly designed for today's time-pressed readers. The Tory newsletter does follow writing guidelines, like the use of highlighted keywords, and also uses stills from (linked) video clips to break up the text, drawing users' eyes down the screen. In contrast to these rival offerings, Labour's newsletter is one big wall of gray, undifferentiated text.

I talked to Mark Hanson who is working on the Labour campaign, last week, and he has a different take than Nielsen on the Labour emails. Labour's emails don't use images as they are designed to be visible in as many email clients and mobile devices as possible. 

He also says that Labour's emails are more targeted, by demographic, interest etc, and claims this has resulted in high open rates of over 80%, and action rates of 20% or more. 

There is some sense in this view, so while Nielsen criticises Labour for being too text-heavy, perhaps this is a smarter strategy if more people can read these emails, since many email clients block images by default, and not everyone chooses to download the images. 


Nielsen doesn't mention this in his post, so I thought I'd unsubscribe from the emails myself to see first hand. 

Unsurprisingly, all three have the unsubcribe links at the foot of the emails, with the Labour link in particularly small print: 

Clicking the unsubscribe link in both Liberal Democrat and Labour emails takes you straight to a confirmation page. Here is Labour's, which does at least give the option of re-subscribing for those who may have clicked the link in error: 

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats miss a chance here to gather some feedback from users on why they have decided to unsubscribe, or even offer the option of more targeted and less frequent mailings should they prefer. 

The parties should have a look at the M&S unsubscribe page shown here, as this is one way to gather valuable information for future campaigning and perhaps save a few users from opting out. 

The Conservative unsubscribe process is the most likely to have recipients hitting the 'report spam' button though, as users are expected to email them to request removal from the list. 

Clicking the link opens up a new email message: 

Since people have no warning of this before they click the link, it may be confusing for many. Do they have to write anything in the subject line and body text? If so, what? 

I emailed the address shown, but half an hour later, I still have no acknowledgement of my unsubscribe request. This is a very poor unsubscribe process. 


Nielsen gave the Conservatives a mark of 63%, the Liberal Democrats 62%, and Labour 56%, though I'm sure how reliable these results are. 

For example, having been subscribed to all three parties' emails since February, I have completely different figures on the frequency of the emails. 

Also, I can't understand how he can have looked at the Conservative unsubscribe process, which is truly awful, and given it a score of 64%, compared with Labour's 63% and 73% for the Lib Dems, when it doesn't even provide confirmation that users have opted out. 

The Obama campaign demonstrated the potential of email in politics, and though all three parties seem to have learned this lesson, there is still room for improvement in their email marketing efforts. 

Graham Charlton

Published 26 April, 2010 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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