Monday, January 02, 2006

Stay out of my inbox

As I've said before, I try to steer clear of the "print is dead" debate. I find the whole thing sort of silly. It seems clear to me that some parts of print are dead, while other parts will survive much longer than I will.
On the other hand, I am worried about the fate of one of the more popular forms of electronic publishing -- the email newsletter.
A year ago, I subscribed to around 100 email newsletters. I didn't have the time to search every single Web page that interested me, so I asked publishers to come to me. I filled out the forms -- even the very annoying and intrusive ones that are common among controlled-circulation publishers -- and let my email in-box fill with news. But as 2006 begins, I find that I'm subscribing to only about a dozen email newsletters. And most of those are related to my clients.
In other words, I tend to subscribe to these things now only when I'm getting paid to do so.

The reason for this, of course, is RSS. Like millions of other folks around the world, I became an RSS addict in 2005. With RSS, I control the timing and appearance of my news. With RSS I don't have to worry about annoying "unsubscribe" functions that don't work properly. With RSS I'm not subjected to a never-ending stream of spam and other marketing nonsense from publishers.
For a content consumer, RSS is a vastly superior delivery mechanism. And I expect that, eventually, every consumer will demand it. Content is becoming containerless, and the publisher who doesn't understand that will lose readers.

But let me be clear: there's no need to panic. I'm not predicting the death of the email newsletter in 2006 (although I may wind up predicting it for 2007 or so.) Sure, RSS is growing like crazy. And sure, many of your customers want it now. But RSS still requires a tiny bit of technical knowledge, and users require at least a passing interest in efficiency or time management before they start thinking about RSS. So it will be awhile before the majority of your audience demands RSS, and it will be even longer before the majority of your audience refuses to subscribe to newsletters.

Given that, I tell publishers and journalists to offer RSS now (it's about the easiest thing you'll ever do) while putting a little more effort into improving the newsletters they publish. My experience has been that journalists tend to think of email products as annoying, administrative tasks. The laziest folks at any B2B company like to say that they are "print" people. And they don't put much effort into the Web site. Quite predictably, email newsletters, which are produced only once a week or so, get even less attention.
For example, lots of lazy writers copy the lead of a story and paste it into the newsletter. The result is that users read a paragraph in the email, click on the link, and then come upon the exact same piece of text they just read. A newsletter should carry a tease -- something that urges a reader to click through to the story. And a tease should never be the same as a story lead.
Want another example? I recently reviewed a year's worth of email products for a client. Much to my surprise, I found that the staff hadn't filled out the title tag in a single issue. That sort of ineptitude can do great harm to a publication's ranking in search engines. And after finding that the tags were missing, I wasn't surprised to find that the same folks had failed to include a single link, graphic, photo, audio or video file in any stories for the entire year.

RSS is the future. And smart people in media can see that.
But until the future is here, I'd advise folks to worry less about RSS and worry more about the quality of existing products.
Because a lot of them are truly awful.

For a look at one of the most overlooked features of the email newsletter, take a look at this piece about subject lines.
For a look at some interesting research on what makes someone read a newsletter, check out this piece in Chief Marketer. (FULL DISCLOSURE: Although I can't take any credit for this particular article, one of my clients has been the Chief Marketer family of products published by the newly renamed Prism. And from now on, I won't be able to take any credit, or blame, for anything at Chief Marketer. That consulting gig ended on Dec. 31. )

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  1. Hi, Paul

    I know what you mean about e-mail newsletters. I maintain subscriptions to about 20 e-mail newsletters and alert services, but most of those are subscriptions I've had for 3-4 years or more. It's VERY rare that I subscribe to a new e-mail alert service these days. Feeds work better for me, too.

    But in my experience, a lot of folks (perhaps most) prefer e-mail to feeds. This is mainly because e-mail is familiar and comfortable to them; feeds are not.

    I really don't expect this to change quickly, and that's fine. If people like e-mail, give them an e-mail option as long as you don't mind the extra work that entails.

    I do encourage everyone to learn how to use feeds simply because, from the publisher's perspective, producing and distributing an e-mail newsletter or alert often *does* entail extra work. (Unless you use a service like FeedBlitz, which auto-generates e-mail alerts based on feed content, but not everyone's happy with that option either.) This usually means that busy online publishers aren't willing to go to the trouble to produce an e-mail newsletter. so even if you like e-mail, you might not have that option.

    Eventually I think the usability of feeds will improve to the point that more people will prefer that option. But until then, give your target audience whatever works best for them. IMHO, that is.

    - Amy Gahran

  2. Hi Amy,
    Thanks for the comment.
    Looks like we're on the same page. I don't suggest that publishers kill their email least not yet. There's revenue attached, and the audience has grown used to them, if not actually fond of them.
    But change is coming. And RSS is so very easy to implement. So I urge publishers to begin using it now in addition to email newsletters.

  3. Paul,
    I'd asked you a few posts ago for your opinion on e-mail newsletters. I found myself agreeing thoroughly with your current post, although I'd wager that the death knell for e-mail newsletters may be rung earlier than you predict.

    At the trade publication where I'm an online editor/reporter, we're struggling with whether to keep our e-mail alert alive or just give way to RSS. I'm of the opinion that we should kill it off and throw our lot in with RSS.

    It astounds me, too, how over the last year I've gone from relying on e-mail newsletters to keep me informed to finding them an utter nuisance.

  4. Hi,
    From the point of view of a journalist or a consumer, I agree -- kill the newsletter and go with RSS.
    But from the point of view of a publisher, I disagree. There's too much revenue attached to these things to kill them just yet.
    I say:
    1) launch RSS.
    2) Improve the quality of the newsletters.
    3) Find a way to replace the revenue you're going to lose -- and you are going to lose it -- as your email subscriptions shrink.

  5. Paul,

    Nice posting. I actually do think that "print is dead" and am writing a book with that title ("Print is Dead: Books in the Age of the Interent"). I've started a blog for the book, which you visit at the link:

    Keep up the good work.