RSS: The E-Mail Marketing Killer?

I’m a long-time RSS (define) user. I love having Formula One news (congratulations to my countryman Jenson Button on his long-awaited first win) on my Yahoo home page. I also receive several blogs and podcasts via RSS. I’m regularly asked, “Should we be doing RSS?” In the majority of cases, my answer’s no. That response may surprise you, but it’s important to understand the question’s subtext.

As early as 2003, bloggers and pundits were hailing RSS as the e-mail marketing killer. There are still people pushing RSS in exactly that manner: as an alternative to e-mail newsletters and promotions, one not prone to delivery problems, spam filtering, or blocking. It’s in this context I’m typically asked about RSS, but I’m somewhat skeptical of RSS as an alternative to e-mail for a mass-market audience.

True, RSS isn’t prone to push-technology issues. It’s a pull technology. A subscriber polls your feed on a regular basis (typically hourly) to download the latest information. This has a significant effect on how people subscribe and unsubscribe, and how you can segment and target audiences.

In addition, RSS is a technology developed for content syndication, primarily between Web sites. Although that doesn’t necessarily preclude its use for other purposes, it does mean that right now, content syndication, news feeds, blogs, and podcasts are what most people use RSS for and what they expect to receive through it.

Finally, RSS’ immaturity is highlighted by the user experience in many RSS readers and aggregators. Subscribing to and reading RSS feeds can still be very difficult for the uninitiated. I know competent computer users who, when tasked with evaluating RSS, find it extremely difficult even to subscribe. It’s not uncommon to find feeds that simply don’t work with some readers.

In researching marketing use of RSS, I found several cases of very poor implementation. For example, I added an RSS feed from one car manufacturer to my Yahoo home page. This involved clicking on the logo, viewing the XML file in my browser, then cutting and pasting the URL into Yahoo. Once the feed was on my home page, I discovered it had a total of three articles, all at least three months old.

Net result? It’s not useful or effective to take a quarterly newsletter or monthly promotional e-mail and publish it via RSS for the mass market.

But RSS is far from a dead loss. There are many ways companies can effectively utilize RSS, and Heidi Cohen gives several suggestions. Yet marketers must understand that just as e-mail is different from traditional direct marketing, so too is RSS different from e-mail. It’s a different medium with different strengths and weaknesses, and it’s still in its infancy.

Building effective RSS programs requires careful consideration of those strengths and weaknesses, and extensive testing and learning. Initially, the most successful programs are likely to appeal to niche audiences of early adopters and feature content similar to the news feeds for which RSS was originally created. As the medium matures, RSS readers will become easier to use, and users will become more comfortable with RSS. The reach will broaden and deepen into the mainstream, and opportunities for RSS use will increase. But that won’t happen overnight. I’m sure those heralding RSS as the e-mail killer in 2003 expected it to have happened already.

In the meantime, RSS isn’t a silver-bullet solution to e-mail deliverability. If your e-mail programs are having deliverability issues, work to resolve your subscription and subscriber management processes. Consider RSS as a new, separate channel.

Disagree? Tell me how you think RSS fits into the marketing mix and where you think it’s headed.

Until next time.

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