RSS’ Effect on E-Mail Marketing

I wrote a research report early this month that looks at the effect RSS (define) will have on email marketing. Overall, RSS won’t be immediately effective as an alternative to email marketing. The reasons are various (and covered in the report), but our work also indicates that for some companies (primarily publishers who cater to a technical audience), it’s sensible to press forward with RSS now as a supplement to email marketing.

After the report was published, some readers said they expect RSS to more immediately effect email marketing, saying RSS can be personalized just as email can and removes marketers from spam-cluttered avenues where delivery issues abound. This notion has its merits (though it’s not backed by any data). But RSS as an email marketing alternative isn’t so black and white.

RSS Isn’t Spam-Free

The notion RSS is free of delivery issues isn’t necessarily correct. The primary driver of the spam phenomenon is it’s a low-cost medium with no significant economic or regulatory barriers. RSS, in its nascent state, is very similar in that regard. Moreover, it’s very easy to manipulate an RSS feed so it looks like new content, as Marc Hedlund describes. That would clutter aggregator feeds.

It’s also easy to create a feed that appears to be a news or entertainment story but is really an ad dissimilar to the category content. Use of popular search terms and brand names in feeds unrelated to that content have already created “RSS spam” at aggregators such as Feedster and Pluck. This holds especially true when subscribing to search results feeds.

As legitimate marketing feeds will be picked up (i.e., delivered), so will clutter that resembles legitimate feeds. Unfettered, this could significantly undermine the channel for direct marketing. It’s very probable the RSS horizon will mirror the email channel. Reaction to bogus clutter could create a category of RSS spam filtering companies and weaken consumer confidence in the medium.

RSS Personalization? Maybe, But Master E-Mail Targeting First

RSS is sort of inherently personalized. The end user chooses what to subscribe to, and publishers broadcast their content. Personalizing those feeds further doesn’t strike me as something that will catch on. Here’s why: Although salutation personalization is easy in email marketing through common mail-merge functionality, less than one-half of marketers take email personalization efforts beyond that. A recent Jupiter Research report on email marketing tactics finds less than a third of marketers use click-through data as a segmentation attribute for targeting.

It seems an ideal segmentation attribute. However, harnessing URL click behavior from RSS feeds seems unlikely. To date, we’ve seen very few marketers master it as it relates to email. With such low adoption of personalization and targeting within the email channel, it’s highly unlikely marketers will begin to radically personalize feeds any time soon.

Low consumer adoption of RSS also makes it very difficult to come up with relevant segments large enough to make additional content development or feeds meaningful. Without a dedicated measurement application, it’s hard to know how a given feed was consumed, let alone know who the subscribers are. RSS lends itself to broadcasting content when targeting is limited to the category level, not the individual subscriber level. By our definition, that’s not personalization.

Get Ready for the RSS Vendor Flood

We’re already seeing a number of companies, such as SimpleFeed and Syndicate IQ, enter the space to empower marketers with measurement tools. Likewise, companies with roots in email (Got Corporation and SubscriberMail) are adding RSS options. Although interest in RSS is increasing, this emerging category is anyone’s game. It may become as splintered as the email marketing vendor space is today.

RSS provides opportunity, particularly for newsletter publishers, but let’s not kid ourselves. As it’s repurposed for more direct marketing initiatives, it won’t be a smooth, clutter-free ride. As email marketers, we can relax. This technology won’t seriously compete with our channel, so we can focus on what we need to: making email marketing more relevant!

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