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Broadcast Your News with RSS

Volume Number: 21 (2005)
Issue Number: 2
Column Tag: Marketing

Software Marketing

by Dave Wooldridge

Broadcast Your News with RSS

Why E-mail Newsletters are Losing Their Effectiveness

With the overwhelming onslaught of spam, the effective marketing power of e-mail newsletters is rapidly declining. For years, many companies have successfully promoted their products and services through legitimate opt-in e-newsletters, but the mainstream adoption of aggressive spam filters are making it increasingly difficult to reach customers via e-mail. The solution is RSS.

What's Wrong With E-Mail?

As a business owner who understands the value of communicating with our customers, I've employed the use of a double opt-in email newsletter on our web site so that interested users can elect to receive free announcements and exclusive offers from us in the form of a monthly e-mail. For years, this has been an effective way to promote products and offers to new and existing customers. They voluntarily requested to receive the information and I'm more than happy to deliver it. The ratio of bounced e-mails was always very small compared to the high percentage of opened e-mails. We also enjoyed a fairly high click-through rate from the hyperlinks in our e-newsletters. But in the last year or two, I've noticed that the percentage of bounced and unopened e-mails has drastically risen. Once one of our most powerful online marketing tools, the e-mail newsletter is quickly losing its effectiveness.

So what happened? Why are opt-in e-newsletters having trouble reaching their subscribers? A suspicious eye points to spam as the primary culprit. With spam constituting more than 40% of all e-mail sent world-wide, e-mail inboxes everywhere are feeling the strain of the countless spam messages that arrive daily. To combat the never-ending invasion, Internet users are installing software spam filters, which offer automated solutions for detecting and deleting spam.

While spam filters do an amazing job at ridding your inbox of unwanted, unsolicited messages, they are often over-zealous in their task, accidentally deleting important e-mails that you actually do want to read. Intelligent spam filters allow users to customize a "white list" of acceptable senders, but unfortunately, instructing your e-newsletter subscribers to add your e-mail address to their "white lists" may not resolve this issue. For many consumers, just installing the spam filter was difficult enough. Asking them to also "configure" the spam filter will undoubtedly go beyond the comfort level of many newbie computer users. Even if your subscribers are tech-savvy enough to properly optimize their spam filters, they may not remember to do so. Over the course of time, an individual may sign up for dozens of e-mail newsletters. Let's say they installed a brand new spam filter yesterday. They remember to "white list" their friends and family, but not the many e-mail newsletters they've volunteered to receive. Today, you send out your latest monthly e-newsletter, which is quickly eaten by their new spam filter, unbeknownst to the recipient.

Another factor that is quickly eroding the effectiveness of e-mail newsletters is the dominating fear that most consumers now have in submitting their e-mail address through web site forms. Even if you post your company's privacy policy online, reassuring visitors that their e-mail addresses will not be shared or sold to anyone, their fear of possibly receiving more spam often outweighs any amount of trust they have in your web site. Many companies have seen a steady drop in the number of e-mail newsletter sign-ups each month.

As a result, RSS and other news feed technologies (such as Atom) are quickly becoming an important alternative for communicating with customers. The problem with e-mail is that once a spammer gets a hold of your e-mail address, they can continue to fill your inbox with unwanted messages, leaving spammers with all of the control. The beauty of RSS is that it gives the control back to Internet users, allowing them to subscribe and "fetch" only the news they want without relinquishing any personal information (such as e-mail addresses).

An Alternative Communication Channel

So you've heard about RSS and vaguely understand that its an XML-based format for broadcasting and syndicating news and weblogs. You may have even been curious enough to download and test drive one of the many Mac-based news readers available such as NetNewsWire (http://ranchero.com/netnewswire/), Radio Userland (http://radio.userland.com/), or NewsFire (http://www.newsfirerss.com/). Or maybe you maintain your own personal weblog through a third-party site or software application, which automatically generates an RSS or Atom feed of your blog. But so far, you've only perceived RSS as an "early adopter" technology and have not figured out how it could benefit your company's quest to reach the mainstream online audience.

If I just described your experience with RSS, then 2005 is the year you should seriously reconsider RSS as a viable communication channel for your business. Take a quick look at the home pages of your favorite web sites and you'll find that a large majority of them now display little blue or orange RSS/XML buttons that are hyperlinked to their respective news feeds. 2004 saw a rapid adoption of RSS by thousands of companies, musicians, writers, politicians, etc. as a powerful new way to reach people safely and quickly. With an RSS feed, you can post anything to subscribers that you would normally include in your e-mail newsletter such as press releases, special offers, handy tips, hyperlinks, pictures, and more. There are even a growing number of sites that post special RSS feeds with embedded audio files - affectionately labeled by many as "podcasting" since the downloaded feeds can be synced with iTunes and iPods.

No longer isolated to "early adopter" news reader software, RSS is now supported by the popular Firefox web browser and coming soon to Safari (with the highly anticipated release of Mac OS X Tiger). By the time you read this, RSS support may have been added to other major web browsers as well.

Millions of Firefox users are already enjoying RSS due to its easy-to-use integration with the web browser. Subscribing to a news feed in Firefox is as easy as adding the RSS URL as a new "Live Bookmark". Firefox's Live Bookmarks are displayed as folders in the Bookmarks sidebar pane. Simply expand a Live Bookmark folder to see a complete list of broadcasted news entries from that RSS feed (see Figure 1).


Figure 1.

No longer seen as an "early adopter" technology, RSS has already found mainstream popularity and support in the Firefox web browser (above) and the forthcoming Safari RSS browser.

So now you're ready to take advantage of RSS, but the idea of having to learn XML or a new technology is causing much hesitation. Your work schedule is insanely busy, so just the thought of adding RSS to your overflowing "to do" list is causing mild stomach pains. Not to worry. There's a quick and easy way to create your own RSS news feed for free and without any knowledge of RSS or XML.

Look, Ma - No Hands!

A weblog is a collection of postings, so it's very similar to the functionality of RSS news feeds, except that weblogs have their own web page interface for displaying blog entries. This is why syndicated feeds were a natural companion for weblogs and were adopted quite early on by savvy bloggers. Sites like Blogger (http://www.blogger.com/) offer a free weblog service for anyone who wishes to start their own weblog. Not only will they host your weblog for free, but they also provide all the web-based tools you need to post new entries.

Why should you care about a weblog when you're trying to create an RSS feed? Because Blogger (as well as other similar services) automatically generates a news feed of your weblog, accessible from a dedicated public URL. Don't think of weblogs as only useful for sharing personal online journals. They can also serve as an easy way to maintain a virtual press room! If you already post your press releases and announcements on your web site, then you can kill two birds with one stone by creating a weblog for all of your news postings. Instead of creating a special page on your site for displaying news, simply link from your web site to your news-oriented weblog.

Beyond being free, Blogger.com is a solid, dependable choice since it is owned by search engine giant, Google. Blogger.com also maintains a heavily linked network of weblogs, ensuring additional exposure within the blogging community. Online marketers are starting to realize that since weblogs typically contain lots of links and text, they tend to rank much higher in the search engine ratings than normal business sites that get weighed down by the heavy use of non-searchable elements such as Flash and images. This means that there's a strong possibility that your press releases and announcements will rank higher in search engines when posted on your weblog than if only posted on your business web site.

After signing up for your free Blogger account, you have the option to either pick one of their many pre-made web page templates or you can customize the web page style sheet of your weblog to mirror the look and feel of your own web site. If you don't know HTML, then the pre-made templates are a great solution, but for a professional business, its in your best interest to customize the template so that the integration of your weblog with your own site appears to be as seamless as possible. For an example of this, check out the developer site RB Garage (http://www.rbgarage.com/) and then click on the "News Feed" link in the menu. The link takes you to RB Garage's News page, which stays true to the site's page design while being hosted by Blogger.com. Visitors can either read RB Garage News online via the weblog or they can opt to receive the same information by subscribing to RB Garage's RSS/XML news feed URL.

Most bloggers invite readers to post comments about their daily blog entries in the hopes of initiating some interesting dialog among differing opinions. If you're utilizing your weblog as an online press room, you'll probably want to prevent users from posting comments about your press releases (especially negative comments that might derail your marketing objectives). The interactive comments feature can be easily disabled in your Blogger.com account settings.

A Smart Feed Is The Best Feed

The news feed URL that Blogger.com provides is in the Atom format. Some news readers support Atom, but at the moment, RSS appears to be more widely supported. In order to ensure the most compatibility and exposure with the widest array of news reader software, browsers, and syndicated portal sites, you want your news feed to support the common flavors of both RSS and Atom.

This can be easily accomplished by utilizing the innovative services of FeedBurner (http://www.feedburner.com/). As of this writing, their services are still free, but they may eventually charge a nominal fee for their use. With FeedBurner, you supply them with your Atom-based feed URL from Blogger.com, which they convert into what they call a SmartFeed. The converted SmartFeed is a different URL than the one provided by Blogger.com. You'll notice that the SmartFeed URL is hosted by FeedBurner. Powered by FeedBurner's unique technology, your SmartFeed is capable of dynamically supplying your news in either Atom format, RSS format, or a web-based format using an XML style sheet (XSLT), depending on the compatibility of the software that's attempting to read it.

But what about statistics? With most mailing list software, the number of current subscribers is always available. More sophisticated programs can even track the number of bounced, opened and clicked e-mails in a given e-newsletter campaign. So the obvious question is: if subscribers are fetching the news from your feed instead of receiving an e-mail from you, how do you measure the effectiveness of RSS versus e-newsletters? Fortunately, FeedBurner also provides a nice array of statistics on your news feed. Simply log into your FeedBurner account to review the circulation of unique subscribers to your feed (based on IP addresses). It even gives you a breakdown of what software is being used to read your news feed. The statistics also include the number of hits/requests for your feed and the number of click-throughs to measure the effectiveness of links in your news feed postings.

Moving forward, only publicize the SmartFeed URL that's maintained by FeedBurner. You'll notice that on the SpiderWorks News page in Figure 1 and the RB Garage News page that was previously mentioned, the SmartFeed is the only RSS/XML link provided, guaranteeing that everyone who subscribes to that URL should be able to successfully read your news feed, regardless of the software they are using. Forcing all subscribers to use only your SmartFeed URL also allows you to maintain and monitor accurate usage statistics through FeedBurner.

It's All About Options

While this article obviously promotes the benefits of RSS, this does not mean that you should abandon your e-mail newsletter. Some people may still prefer to receive e-mail. In an effort to reach as many customers as possible, you should provide multiple options. Next to the e-newsletter sign-up form on your web site, include a link to your RSS news feed as an alternative selection (see Figure 2). To catch the eye of those who are specifically looking for that URL, use the standard blue and orange RSS/XML buttons that are popping up everywhere online.


Figure 2.

To accommodate the preferences of all users, your web site should offer more than one method for distributing news.

By maintaining an e-mail newsletter, a web-based press room (through your weblog), and an RSS/Atom/XML SmartFeed (generated from your weblog), you are giving the power of choice back to Internet users while simultaneously increasing the exposure for your products and services. A win/win situation for everyone!

The Icing On The Cake

While some people do forward notable e-newsletters to a friend or family member, the biggest advantage that RSS has over e-mail is that XML-based news feeds can be syndicated. This means that any web site that wishes to repurpose your news for their audience can use a scripting language like PHP or Perl to parse and display your news items on their web site. For example, RBGarage.com's RSS feed provides the latest press releases and announcements from the REALbasic developer community. There are dozens of REALbasic-related web sites that currently syndicate the RB Garage News Feed. Those sites are hungry for free content and the products spotlighted in the RB Garage News Feed receive additional exposure. Post it in one place and it automatically gets displayed on dozens of web sites. Publicists work hard to distribute press releases via e-mail, eager for any willing web sites to help spread the word. With RSS news feeds, the broadcasting is automatic to all sites that have syndicated that feed.

RSS is a welcome solution for both online marketers and Internet users who are looking for a safe and effective way to send and receive news outside of the spam-infested world of e-mail.


Dave Wooldridge is the founder of Electric Butterfly (www.ebutterfly.com), the software company responsible for HelpLogic and the popular developer site, RBGarage.com. He is also co-founder of the new eBook publisher, SpiderWorks (www.spiderworks.com).

 
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