RSS vs. Email Newsletters


Doug Kaye has a recent IT conversation with Chris Pirillo who has been on a campaign to push the adoption of RSS instead of email for newsletters. If you're not familiar with Chris, he runs the popular LockerGnome web site which supports dozens of email newsletters on a variety of subjects. Chris, who must fight with email problems all the time, given the large number of email newsletters he supports, would like to move more of his readers from email to newsletters.

To that end, Lockergnome publishes a channel on RSS that contains postings on interesting feeds, analysis, news, and tips on software. There's also a tutorial and reference section.

My own experience, although smaller in scale, is that there are still a lot of people who would rather receive email. My own small newsletter, which is essentially a formatted and filtered version of my RSS feed, has about 250 subscribers. My RSS feed gets downloaded by about 650 unique IP addresses per day. It would be nice to not do the newsletter, but not everyone uses aggregators.

As a means of delivering syndicated information, RSS has some significant advantages over email:

  • RSS is much simpler to maintain for the syndicator
  • RSS is explicitly opt-in
  • Unsubscribing from an RSS feed is simple and foolproof
  • RSS processing can be easily automated
  • RSS is more anonymous (no need to give out email address)

There are also some disadvantages at present:

  • Not enough people use aggregators
  • There's a lot of FUD surrounding different RSS standards (hint: just ignore it unless you write aggregator software)
  • Email is push and some people use the event of an email showing up as a reminder

When I talk to people about aggregators, I feel like I did in 1993 telling people about Mosaic, except its worse. "Aggregator" doesn't have the same ring to it that "browser" did. People think of "browsing" as a pleasant experience. I'm not sure many people have positive feelings about "aggregating." Another problem is the overwhelming array of aggregators available and the perception that RSS is just about blogs.

Even so, with more and more web sites, including mainstream media, offering RSS feeds now, I think there's plenty of interesting information to entice people to download, install, and fire-up an aggregator. In 1993, I started having lunchtime tutorials at BYU for people who wanted to understand what the World Wide Web was. The main goal was to teach them how to use a browser. Maybe its time to do that again.