the markITeer

Email and/or RSS?

Posted by the markITeer on July 12, 2007

Since a couple of months I’m systematically unsubscribing myself from email newsletters and subscribing to the RSS feed equivalent. I just couldn’t handle the massive amount of newsletters any more. It cluttered my inbox, drowned the important messages. My ideal scenario? Using e-mail for personal messages and RSS for all the rest.

However, being an email marketeer myself since quite some years, I was kind of shocked by my own actions. Could it be that RSS is replacing email after all? Is email marketing dead?

It’s in fact a very old discussion on the net. Back in 2004, at the dawn of RSS, RSS believers where quick to bury email alive, waving the spam-flag to prove their point. Email defenders answered with the email’s ease of use and personalization possibilities. It was an endless yes/no game stuck in the same arguments over and over again. Luckily the discussion faded and RSS and email believers alike came to believe that both technologies can peacefully co-exist and complement each-other in the marketing mix.

It took however till the wide-spread adoption of web 2.0 in 2006 for RSS to become a real mature medium of content delivery. Google launched its online RSS reader, blogs made the number of feeds sky-rocket and widgets offered all new possibilities.

So where are we now? Can RSS and email peacefully co-exist? Or is RSS becoming an email killer after-all?

Starting from the great comparison table between email and RSS Alex Barnett put together back in 2004, I created a new, up-to-date, version showing both mediums’ strengths and weaknesses from a marketeer’s and customer’s point of view, and added some remarks:

Remarks

(1) Email has proven a to be great tool for creating a personalized, 1-to-1 feel in mass communication, going from simple personalized salutation to Amazon-like delivery of personalized content. RSS on the other hand is currently mostly used for non-personalized content delivery. With RSS, you can choose the feeds you want to subscribe too, but that’s as far as it goes. The upside for the consumer is that because content isn’t personalized, and because RSS doesn’t require you to give any personal information to subscribe (as opposed to the email address for email marketing), the consumer can see the content without giving away any sensitive data. As soon as the content has to be personalized, the consumer would have to reveal himself. Strangely enough, this is an option that is almost never considered: You could offer the RSS feed subscriber the option to receive personalized content via RSS if he makes himself known. In that case the subscriber would receive a personal RSS feed URL with personalized content, and would he be able to get the best of both worlds.

(2) The viral effect of email has enormous potential. It is very easy for a recipient to add some comments and forward the email. The viral effect of RSS on the other hand was long time a problem. Web 2.0 did however solve this by embracing RSS as a means of content sharing between different social networks like digg.com or del.icio.us. People can comment on stories they received via RSS, add them to their online bookmarks which in their turn can be shared with other people and so on. Feedburner (Google-owned) is one of the big players in this field. It allows you to easily offer your feeds in RSS format and to have your stories submitted to a number of social networking sites. Interesting is that it also allows you to receive new content via email (e.g. the email subscribe link on the right)!

(3) Email marketeers can rely on a set of tools to track the behavior of the email recipients. Click-through, opened and bounce ratios, opt-ins and opt-outs, ROI, … they can all be measured because the consumer has had to make himself known in order to receive the content: he had to give his email address. And this allows the email sender to track all actions back to you, the recipient. Because with RSS the consumer doesn’t have to give any personal information, statistics are less detailed. Unless of course you could convince the consumer to subscribe to a personalized feed (see (1))…

(4) This is one of the major draw-backs of RSS content gathering. Email is much easier to search and archive. Most RSS readers only allow archiving of entire feeds, and for example Google (how strange sounds this?) doesn’t offer a search functionality to search all your subscriptions in its RSS reader (although there is a workaround available).

(5) This is however changing rapidly.

Conclusion

What was true in 2004 looks to be truer still. RSS and email have become two full-blown communication channels that can (and must) exist next to each other. It’s up to the marketeers to adapt to this reality and figure out how they can integrate both channels in their marketing mix.

Personally, I have a couple of rules I follow when I decide whether or not to keep an email newsletter subscription:

  • If the newsletter content and RSS feed content are identical, I go for the RSS feed
  • If the newsletter is highly personalized (and I don’t mean just the salutation), I keep my newsletter subscription. If one day however the personalized version of the newsletter would be available through RSS, I might still make the switch.
  • If the content of the newsletter is highly time-sensitive, I keep the newsletter subscription. RSS feeds have a lower priority than my email inbox.
  • If the email newsletter offers extras compared to the RSS feed, I keep the newsletter subscription.
  • If the email newsletter offers a clever aggregation of website content, I sometimes keep the newsletter subscription.
  • If the email newsletter offers content that is just sporadically interesting and there is no RSS feed, I unsubscribe. I would still rather subscribe to a RSS feed that delivers only once in while an interesting post between a bunch of uninteresting stuff, than to a newsletter offering the same content.

I guess it once again comes down to delivering the right content through the right channel. And RSS turned out to be a channel indeed.

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