FeedBurner’s Free RSS-to-Email Syndication: Why You Can’t Afford It

May 12th, 2009
Published on
May 12th, 2009

Feedburner is an outstanding tool, but there are alternatives to FeedBurner’s “Email Subscriptions” that should be considered.

UPDATE:Since this post, FeedBurner has updated their RSS-to-Email syndication service with customized subject lines, a feature that can greatly improve the overall experience of email campaigns through FeedBurner.

In an environment where our users retrieve updates via syndicated content, can we afford to settle for less in our means of syndication?

In this post, I’m going to show you why you shouldn’t be using FeedBurner to distribute RSS Feeds via Email, and offer some alternatives to FeedBurner that do Email Syndication better.

Why You Can’t Depend on RSS

Being someone who relies heavily on RSS for keeping up to date with my favorite sites, it took me some time to realize there is a problem with how websites sometimes choose to syndicate content. The beautiful thing about RSS is how simple it is to distribute and customize both on the developer and users end.

The problem isn’t RSS itself, but rather a lack of transition over to RSS from traditional Email Newsletters. According to one report published by the Nielsen Norman group in recent years, over 80% of users are totally unaware of what RSS means. Another study from 2005 suggests only 2% of all online households are using RSS with users between ages 12-21 being more likely to use RSS.

It’s fair to assume that these studies aren’t 100% accurate, and RSS has come a ways since the studies were carried out, but the fact remains that RSS is still not the most widely accepted form of content distribution.

FeedBurner Doesn’t Cut It

Maybe using RSS to distribute content alone doesn’t cut it… so what? That’s what we have FeedBurner for, right? With FeedBurner, I can transform an RSS feed into an Email Newsletter for fast, easy, free syndication.

FeedBurner makes it so easy to settle for a free Email alternative: you literally plug in an RSS feed and you’re good to go. There are several problems with this form of Email Syndication:

  1. Email isn’t a Feed Reader.
    With RSS, we see individual headlines and pick and choose rapidly which bits and pieces to read. Email is a bit more personal, and users may tend to devote more time to a well crafted newsletter.
  2. FeedBurner Lacks Subject Line Customization.
    On a scale of 1 to 10, Subject Lines are an 11 when it comes to Email. Unfortunately, FeedBurner only allows for you to create a static Email Subject that gets applied to all updates. Forget personalized email subjects that include a users name, or titles that convey what the message actually contains.
  3. FeedBurner has very basic Email Branding options, but no ability to really customize the design of a message

    FeedBurner has very limited design customizations available.
    While some other services at least offer templates for crafting basic newsletters, FeedBurner is limited to a few color and font customizations. Otherwise, you’re stuck with the same format as everyone else: a template reminiscent of a Feed Reader inside of an email.

Email and Feed Readers do have something in common: Users will purposefully cut back on items that don’t seem relevant to them. If we want to use Email syndication effectively, we clearly need to provide the user with something more helpful than feed items quickly packaged in an email.

Not An Argument For Email

I’m not trying to argue that Email is the way of the future. It’s possible that Email remains to be an effective way to distribute content for years to come, and it’s also possible it could die out as a syndication tool in the future.

For the time being, Email remains a highly effective way to reach users and shouldn’t be curbed on the sidelines just yet.

If you’re settling for FeedBurner’s RSS to Email features, you’re probably not really reaching your viewers. There’s so much more that can be done to offer a rich, relevant, personalized experience via Email.

Not Just a Feed

My number one suggestion for email syndication is to not treat it like a feed, but instead as much like a personalized message or newsletter as possible. Some studies might be able to tell you exactly what users are most likely to respond to or find useful, but if you’re just interested in making it more useful, start with some simple common sense customizations.

Custom Subjects

First off, make sure you use customized subject lines. Unless a user clicks on an email, this will be the only thing they see so make it count. Use a headline that summarizes the benefit of reading the message in as few words as possible. If possible, use the recepients name in the headline to give it some personal flare.

Use a Professional Design

FontShop’s Digest is an outstanding example of excellent email design.

If you’re trying to make your messages feel like a newsletter, do it with some pride. Since I’m more of an RSS user, it’s very rare I find myself subscribing to Email Newsletters but there are a few I get excited about whenever I see them pop up in my inbox. The ones that seem most enjoyable don’t only have content that I find really useful, but they’re also presented in a really nice way. It’s sort of the difference between getting a copy of WIRED in the mail, or getting a “newsletter” printed on a sheet of paper.

What’s more is that these emails often can act as a continual portal to a website. If an email subscriber really enjoys your newsletters, it’s not out of the question that they will view the email on several different occasions to get to your website and revisit things.

Don’t Waste Time

People hardly ever read entire messages (unless it truly is a personal message sent to them), so don’t make the content of your email unbearable. Effective use of Headings, getting the important stuff out first, and being light on text is key to a useful email.

Better FeedBurner Alternatives

There are many Email Marketing services that do a much better job of content syndication than FeedBurner (at least for Email). The two I’m going to suggest are simply the ones I have some experience with.


AWeber is my personal choice for Content Syndication over Email. It’s easy for me as a developer to set up, can be completely customized/styled, and offers plenty of other useful features that FeedBurner lacks.

What makes AWeber a really excellent choice in my opinion is how easy it is to customize for experienced developers as well as users with limited web development knowledge. Like FeedBurner, I just enter in a feed URL to get started. The options that ensue give me precise control over how my content is delivered though. There are tons of premade templates for the beginner user to build off from, the ability to build a template from scratch using smart tags (Such as the recipients name, the item title, and many more), as well as an option for creating plain text message alternatives.

A Sample Template offered by AWeber. Alternatively, a template can be built from scratch for the experienced developers.

Once a template has been personalized for your feed, you have the ability to set what day(s) the email version of your feed gets sent out on (or if it should be sent whenever there are new items), whether or not to publish the email/newsletter version of your feed to a web archive for online viewing, and whether or not to track clicks. In regards to time the process is very similar to FeedBurner but the ability to customize the message is unrivaled.


I’ve yet to actually use the service myself, but based on the features I’ve seen MailChimp really does the marketing/testing side of Email well.

Though I haven’t tried MailChimp myself, I would absolutely check the service out and see if it’s more fitting. From what I hear, it’s more of a DIY service, but is very comparable to AWeber.

Do You Really Need to Be Paying Attention?

The Short Answer is Yes. It’s crucial to at least understand the pros and cons of RSS to Email syndication via FeedBurner. If your users are more Email savvy, then you’re doing them a huge disservice by not making a switch to a more user friendly format.

That said, you might be serving an audience where 99% of the viewers depend on RSS. In this case, it might not be worth the investment of time and money for a service like AWeber or MailChimp. This is pretty much the same argument I make for supporting old browsers like IE6: It can’t hurt, but if there is little or no benefit could the time and money be better spent elsewhere?