HCI and the challenges of mass communications

XI.2 March + April 2004
Page: 55
Digital Citation

E-mail and ease of use

Mark Hurst

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The growing popularity of Internet-based communications tools raises the question of which method is the most effective, in which contexts. The Internet is widely accepted as a viable medium for mass communications. Most newspapers, magazines, television networks, and other major media outlets already have online presences—usually in the form of Web sites—that supplement the main (offline) delivery of the media property. Some, such as Salon and Slate, are Internet-only publications. Of the offline properties, few, with the notable exception of The Wall Street Journal, have launched any online version that pays for itself through subscription revenue. The Wall Street Journal Online conducted a survey of its readers in January 2003 to ask what sites they use that they would be willing to pay for; only Google and the sports site ESPN.com got a large number of votes [5].

Many media businesses are now wondering how, or indeed whether, to use the Internet to supplement the delivery of their message. For example, in 2003 Clear Channel, the owner of 1200 U.S. radio stations, shut down the webcasts of 150 of its stations [2]. The investment boom of the late 1990s is over. Today's tentative economic outlook and the more realistic attitudes business owners have about Internet technology, raises a pressing question: Which online tool will work for mass communication? Stated another way, which online medium—if any—will attract and retain enough users (viewers, readers, or listeners) to pay for itself in the process?

While the major media companies engage with this issue, a smaller, different kind of "mass communicator" has arrived online: the Weblogger, or blogger. Bloggers write Weblogs, or blogs, a kind of Web-based diary in which new entries are uploaded to the site as often as several times a day. Entries tend to stay within a certain theme and are often filled with links to other blogs—thereby creating a new and unique mass communications environment in which properties actually freely pass users to one other. Like other media operators, bloggers tend to believe strongly in their tool: that it's the most effective at engaging users, disseminating knowledge, and building a community.

Despite all the attention given to Web sites (both traditional designs and newer blogs), another mass communications tool is used widely by online publishers, from media heavyweights to individual bloggers: e-mail.

Lower tech, less flashy, and decidedly older than the more visually engaging Web-based tools, e-mail outdates blogs by almost 30 years. Despite all this, the press still declares e-mail to be "the killer app of the Wired Age" [3].

The first e-mail was sent around 1970 [1]. It has outlived several business cycles; countless magazines, TV shows, and cable networks; and the rise and fall of the "Internet economy" itself. The Web itself is a rank newcomer compared to e-mail; blogs are barely out of the crib. By 2003, more than 100 million households in the United States alone had e-mail addresses [4]. E-mail became the "killer app" by offering significant value-near-instant text communication with any other e-mail user in the world at zero marginal cost—with an easy-to-use interface. Despite rising competition from blogs and other online tools, there are reasons to believe that e-mail will continue to be a primary tool for mass communication in the future, based on its ease of use.

Ease of use is perhaps the single best predictor of success of any Internet-based technology. The Internet promises instant access, response, and gratification; users naturally go to those sites and tools that fulfill this promise.

Wherever they have a choice (and the Internet almost always offers choice), users avoid any tools and sites that put up barriers to the ease of use they expect and receive elsewhere online.

The question remains whether, or when, e-mail is the right tool for mass communications. ESPN.com, after all, isn't likely to shut down its Web site (let alone its cable channel) and turn into an e-mail-only network. Neither should it turn off its various e-mail newsletters just because of the site's popularity. On properties that command a large, consistent readership (and most popular Web sites today are text based), the Web site should continue to be the primary tool for communicating with the brand's users.

Bloggers—today's independent publishers online—have a different set of conditions to contend with. Unlike ESPN.com, NYTimes.com, WSJ.com, or Google.com, most blogs do not command a consistent or large readership. Except for the top 50 or 100 blogs—that is, the top 0.001 percent or so—blogs get their traffic from referrals from other blogs, in the user-sharing system described previously. Most visitors to a given blog are unlikely to visit again, unless they happen to follow another link to it. Even popular blogs suffer the problem that users have to remember to bookmark the site, then to follow that bookmark later (and it's likely to be one of many bookmarks on the user's list).

Independent publishers, then, face a problem ahead. Although they will inevitably enjoy some attention from users shared from other blogs, the user base won't extend much further. Some 99 percent of blogs today are not destined for mass communication. The "mass" of average Internet users are unlikely to keep their bookmarks pruned and sorted; less likely to know (from experience) what a blog is; and even less likely to surf various blogs, bookmark the ones they like, and use their bookmarks list to return regularly to their favorite blogs.

E-mail, however, offers a different user experience. If, on a user's first (and perhaps only) visit, a blog can get the user to sign up for an e-mail version of the blog, the user is more likely to read the blog again. E-mail's ease of use is greater than the blog's. The user doesn't have to bookmark the site; the user doesn't have to remember to go back to the bookmarks list; and perhaps most important, the user doesn't have to rely on links from other blogs to find the site again. E-mail brings the site directly to the user's inbox. It stands to reason that, given the greater ease of use, an e-mail version of a blog would enjoy greater popularity than the Web-based version of the same text.

The one glaring drawback of e-mail is the continuing problem of spam. As spam e-mail increases at a rate not much different from that described by Moore's Law, fewer users are likely to rely less on e-mail.

back to top  References

1. Cavender, S. Legends. Forbes ASAP (Oct. 5, 1998), www.forbes.com/asap/1998/1005/126.html

2. Dotinga, R. Radio ditches webcasts en masse. Wired News (Jan. 9, 2003), www.wired.com/news/digiwood/0,1412,57134,00.html

3. The e-mail monster. Business Week (March 1, 2002), www.businessweek.com/technology/content/mar2002/tc2002031_3760.htm

4. Harmon, A. Resignation may help ground a visionary medium. New York Times (Jan. 14, 2003).

5. So what would you pay for? Wall Street Journal Online (Jan. 16, 2003)

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Thanks to Nico Macdonald and Andrew Zolli for providing helpful support and suggestions during the writing of this abstract.

Author's Bio

Mark Hurst founded Creative Good, a New York-based user experience consulting firm, in 1997. Hurst also writes the Good Experience newsletter and in May 2004 will host the second Good Experience Live (Gel) conference in New York (www.gelconference.com). Hurst began his Internet career as a graduate researcher at the MIT Media Lab; he holds bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science from MIT.

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