Celebrating one-way “relationships”

There’s new research about RSS and e‑mail that’s been floating around for a few days that bears close examination. It comes from the Nielsen Norman Group, a research and consulting group that promotes itself as offering “strategies to enhance the user experience.”

The members of Nielsen Norman Group are user experience pioneers…they advocated user-centered design and usability before it became popular to do so.
The group is headed by Jakob Nielsen, “The Guru of Web Page Usability,” according to the New York Times.

Normally, that introduction wouldn’t matter, but in this case it does, because this research isn’t at all about internet users — it’s about the best way to SELL to internet users, which makes it a little odd coming from people who purport to represent the best interests of users.

“When your message appears in somebody’s RSS newsreader, it has a diminutive footprint that’s rubbing shoulders with a flood of headlines from other sites,” said Jakob Nielsen, co-founder and principal of Nielsen Norman Group, “Newsletters are a much more powerful medium than RSS feeds, and I would not be surprised if it turns out that companies make 10 times as much money from each newsletter subscriber.”
The conclusion is that RSS feeds are no substitute for e‑mail newsletters. Well, duh!

Rich Ziade at basement.org offers four points:

  • I’m not sure it’s fair to compare RSS to e‑mail just yet. I can’t imagine very many people are subscribing to ecommerce newsletters via RSS these days. The work habits around RSS as business marketing aren’t fully baked…yet.
  • A critical shortcoming of just about every RSS reader or aggregator is that all content looks the same. Why do I still visit CNN and techmeme on the web? Because the visual layout of the sites provide me with some context and cognitive guidance. Feed readers don’t. After all, all feeds are not created equal.
  • RSS is supposed to be a great push technology. But let’s be realistic. Nothing gets in our faces better than e‑mail. We will inevitably go to our Inboxes. It will take much broader and deeper adoption before RSS comes near the attention level of e‑mail.
  • Related to the last point, we are so committed to e‑mail that we’re rewiring ourselves to handle and manage SPAM better. So while RSS comes to us free of noise and junk, we’re sticking by e‑mail…for now.
Tobi Elkin wrote in yesterday’s MediaPost Online Minute that she’s not surprised by the study.
The Nielsen Norman report indicates RSS feeds aren’t substitutes for e‑mail newsletters — and we tend to agree. The report goes on to elaborate that the fact that RSS feeds are immune to spam filters that often plague e‑mail newsletters, doesn’t make them a better distribution medium for marketing communications. RSS feeds can be cold and don’t build relationships with customers as newsletters do.
Okay, let’s remember that these people — including the usability guru — are all talking about the ability of marketers to reach people with messages, and they’re comparing the penultimate push technology (e‑mail) with the penultimate pull technology (RSS). Rich is just wrong about RSS being a form of push technology. From a user’s standpoint, RSS is a way to AVOID e‑mail marketing, so what’s the big deal about this study? Money, that’s what.

But come on, Terry, these people are talking about legitimate newsletters that users have opted-in to receive. Well, not exactly, because this position assumes a purity of motive in the opting-in process, which some marketers are slowly turning into opt-out vehicles. There’s a lot at stake to the mass marketing world in the growth and development of RSS, and it would be foolish for marketeurs to wholeheartedly embrace it. RSS is unmistakably an opt-in technology, and the marketing world can ill-afford to endorse such a notion.

The guru concludes that businesses forge closer relationships with customers through e‑newsletters than through RSS feeds. This, however, assumes that customers really want that relationship. I’m sorry, but the jury’s still out on that one.


  1. I am dubious of newsletters because I don’t know where my precious email will show up…ie on a spam list.

    Filters are getting better, sure, but I still don’t trust throwing my online identity out there with reckless abandon.

    That’s why I love RSS so much. It’s crap free. If I don’t like what I’m getting, I delete the feed and that’s it.

    That being said, we recently launched a consumer newsletter at the KTRK-TV website. With no promotion we quickly had a couple hundred folks sign up. So maybe all of us RSS readers are way ahead of the mainstream audience.

  2. “When your message appears in somebody’s RSS newsreader, it has a diminutive footprint that’s rubbing shoulders with a flood of headlines from other sites”…

    I guess when your ad appears on TV or in a magazine or newspaper, it has a “diminutive footprint that’s rubbing shoulders with a flood of” other ads appearing in the same medium.

    That’s why all advertising should be done in a custom magazine that allows no other ads from competitors — wait, that’s a rather self-serving for me to say.

    However, my point is this: What’s his point? That marketers shouldn’t provide RSS feeds of information about their products to their customers? Or, is it that oranges taste better than apples?

    I have unsubscribed to all email newsletters because I hate spam and , frankly, I hate email. However, I also know that despite my best efforts to evangelize RSS, most of my business friends (the non-geek ones) are still clueless regarding newsreaders. And so, my firm still has a robust business in publishing email newsletters for clients. But I also encourage our clients to provide the same information via RSS feeds.

  3. RSS is good if for situations 1) reciever is willing to opt-in 2) reciver already has a vested interest in recieving 3) reciever doesnt’ want loads of crap 4) reciver doesn’t have time to clean their car let alone their inbox

    For the user, RSS provides extreme accelertation (possibly 10x the information), and extreme filtering (receiver will only read what is interesting).

    However, not is all lost, mr spammer. Getting one’s valid but somewhat marketing & sales oriented content into other RSS feeds results in viral marketing. These feeds will be stored and/or blogged. But the end-point (your original website, etc.) would probably have to be very sophisticated and super-niched, because the RSS-Blog combo will have the potential to hit numerous sub-markets/micro-niches. Be prepared or be overwelmed.

    Also, these otherwise diminutive groups can have a tendency to be very vocal. They can also ally quite easily. These can work to your benefit (way beyond any newsletter or website). They can also excoriate the unprepared.

    people hate spam, even despise email. Email is VHS. RSS-Blog is like Tivo, with comments.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.