RSS: A Medium for Marketers

Even the most vigilant opt-in email marketer has likely had a run-in with spam filters. Recent research by Assurance Systems showed that, on average, 15 percent of legitimate email messages are filtered as spam; one ISP was found to be blocking over 25 percent of legitimate messages entering its system. Many email marketers I work with cite spam filters as the number one obstacle they face.

What to do? Some see salvation in RSS, which stands for real simple syndication or rich site summary, depending on whom you ask. This decade-old technology, originally introduced by Netscape, is the talk of electronic publishing circles. It may be a key to filter-free electronic delivery of marketing messages.

What Is RSS?

RSS is basically an electronic feed that sends content (marketing messages or otherwise) to the recipient. Readers can set up their RSS reader software to automatically download content periodically, or they can manually pull it down to their computers. Content appears in graphical format with pictures and fonts, just like HTML (because it is HTML). Readers click links to visit landing pages or reply.

Sounds like email so far, right? Here’s where it’s different. It doesn’t come in through the reader’s email system. Even RSS programs that use Outlook as a platform initiate a separate channel, outside the email pipeline, to receive the feeds. No spam filters to contend with.

Another thing about RSS: It’s completely, 100 percent opt-in. A recipient must proactively choose to receive a feed. There’s no way to send unsolicited content via RSS. No issues with blacklists, spam complaints, and other nuisances even the most scrupulously ethical marketers deal with.

Finally, readers can designate where each feed will arrive. They can set up a folder for one or all of their feeds. It will be free of unsolicited messages and presumably free of much of the clutter legitimate email is caught in. This should minimize readers mistakenly deleting email they want while trying to clear out the spam.

The Recipients’ and Marketers’ Perspectives

Unlike many new technologies, RSS has low barriers to entry for both recipients and marketers. Readers must download RSS reader software. There are numerous shareware programs, and the ones you pay for typically run a low $25.

If RSS intrigues you, I recommend you download the software and try it from a reader’s perspective. (I use NewsGator.) Plug “RSS software” or “RSS reader” into any search engine — there are many programs out there.

Wonder what on earth you’ll find to read via RSS? You’d be surprised. The choices are overwhelming, encompassing tens of thousands of feeds from industry-specific news and business topics to subjects such as Star Trek, quilting, and football. Large and small publishers are players in the RSS world, including ABCNEWS, Business 2.0, Surfing the Net With Kids, and If you go RSS, you’ll be in good company.

For marketers, creating RSS content involves adding some additional coding to a Web page with your HTML content. I’m no techie, but I plan to try this at home after reading fellow ClickZ columnist Danny Sullivan‘s instructions.


As good as RSS has the potential to be, it’s not without challenges, particularly for marketers (as opposed to publishers). These revolve around RSS’ inherent opt-in nature.

To get people to opt in to your marketing messages, must-read content is essential. It has to be something the reader wants to receive. Promising discounts and special promotions may work in some instances (consumer packaged goods and other frequent or repeat purchase items come to mind); in other cases you’ll need more compelling messages to motivate readers to receive your RSS feed. E-mail newsletters are a natural.

Once you’ve got great content to offer your prospects and clients, how do you let them know about it? That’s the second obstacle. If you have opt-in permission to email them, this should be your first line of communication about RSS. You’ll want to explain a little about RSS and the benefits of using it. Certainly, you’ll want to give them everything they need to get started: links to RSS readers, a link to add your feed once they have the reader, and an email address or a phone number for support in getting it all set up.

RSS: Not for Publishers Only

Online publishers have swarmed to RSS. It’s a medium marketers cannot ignore. Can you move 100 percent of your email list to RSS overnight? No. But if you are concerned about false positives, are serious about opt-in, and have content your customers or prospects want, take a look at RSS. The barriers to entry are low, and the potential return is high.

As always, feedback on this column or ideas for future columns are always welcome. Let me know what you think!

Until next month,


Jeanne is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier this month.

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