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

FeedBurner

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

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.

MailChimp

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?

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Comments

  1. I guess the big difference is the cost. Feedburner is free. Great post.

  2. @BobbyBurdette: It’s free if you can afford to offer your email subscribers something far less usable. For many companies, services, and blogs, that can cost more than the small monthly/yearly fee.

  3. I prefer Campaign Monitor to Mailchimp.

    There’s no monthly fee, just pay when you send a campaign. And, before anyone asks, I don’t work for them ;)

  4. And never us exclamation marks in a subject line. It attracts attention from the anti-spamware.

    Great article! Thank you!

  5. True .. maybe one of these days my blog will become a company and actually make money ;) then i’ll start to pay for a better solution. till then…..

  6. Ironic, as i read this through Email via Feedburner. Newsletter systems are out there. Get a free one installed and use it.

  7. Don’t forget FeedBlitz! Not only does FeedBlitz offer fully customized RSS to mail services, unlike Aweber and MailChimp it also offers RSS services and RSS metrics. More in general at http://www.feedblitz.com, FeedBlitz’s customers at http://www.feedblitz.com/customers.asp and on our new RSS service at http://www.feedblitz.com/rssfaq.asp

    Thanks!

    Phil Hollows
    Founder
    FeedBlitz, LLC

  8. Email’s popular in the ‘real’ world. Most of my blog subscriptions are via RSS, but my company website has a preponderance of email subs. Although it seems old fashioned I think the appeal is, as you state, the personal touch.

    We use Mailchimp, as it’s cheap, really easy to use and can handle 000s of mails. I’m sure the alternatives you mention are very good too.

    I would disagree with your definition of ‘professional’. Designing emails is like coding HTML in 1997, a problem exacerbated by the reader variables. We keep the appearance very simple: I’d actually prefer to use plain text (a la Nielsen), but that wouldn’t go down very well.

  9. I personally use AWeber and it is a good system for setting up emails, whether it’s for a follow up or broadcast message. However, I WOULD NOT recommend using AWeber for auto distributing your content.

    AWeber system is not SEO friendly. It pulls and distributes content from the ‘Excerpt’ field. So whatever content you have posted has to be duplicated into the excerpt field. This does two things;

    1. Your Home, Category and Tag pages will display your entire article so you won’t be able to write a short and intriguing synopsis of your post.

    2. Having your entire article displayed on your Home page means you will also have duplicate content issues. This is very big SEO no-no.

    Again, I personally really like AWeber, but just not for auto content distribution.

    My suggestion would be, as mentioned above, design a nice email template and then manually add your content. My personal preference is to send a weekly email newsletter with the headlines and synopsis of the weeks articles with links back to the site.

  10. David, I think the power of customized email campaigns is very real but you need to factor in audience and content as well. TechCrunch sends out RSS emails to their subscribers and is very, VERY successful with that. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I’ve been to TechCrunch’s website. I simply read through the entire email, scanning headlines, picking the stories I want to read. In fact, if it weren’t for that email, I would rarely read TechCrunch.

    One BIG thing RSS-to-email offers is a consistent and predictable user experience. Here are some points why I like it:

    1) I know approximately when to expect emails from a particular website. For example, I expect a TechCrunch email in the late morning every day.

    2) The format is always the same, allowing me to quickly scan through the articles/RSS items to find items of interest.

    3) No BS: I know the content of the emails I receive isn’t going to be jam-packed with irritating propaganda or marketing bullcrap that I have to sift through to find the content I really want.

    For companies selling a tangible product, it certainly doesn’t make sense to offer RSS-to-email syndication. I agree that it would be entirely ineffective and inefficient.

    However, to throw out a blanket statement saying everyone sending RSS-based emails is wrong, I think is incorrect. Like one commenter said, UXBooth even offers RSS-to-email via Feedburner for this site and it makes sense because your product fits the mold of RSS-feedable, email-readable content. For other sites, it doesn’t make any sense at all. You just have to look at the whole picture and decide which avenue fits your business best.

  11. We use both “subscribe to this feed by email” and a monthly “best of” newsletter via MailChimp.

    We also subscribe to a few blogs by email. Feedburner emails are clean, easy to read and quick to load. What’s not to like? Of course the quality of the content has to be high – just like an RSS feed. But, honestly, it’s been months since anybody here has visited Bloglines.

    MailChimp, BTW, is pretty good. We’ve tried out a few and like the functionality and pricing MailChimp.

  12. too bad Zookoda is not longer available, http://www.zookoda.com/
    it was a nice option for starters

  13. @Chris Wallace: Excellent points Chris. In no way did I mean to suggest that audience shouldn’t be considered. In fact, I specifically mentioned at the end of the post that audience should be factored in for this reason.

    @Elio: I’d probably stray from starting companies for this reason alone. I’m much more comfortable trusting this service to companies that clearly aren’t going under in the near future.

    @Kristof: This obviously depends on if you’re using WordPress or not. If you are using WP, you’re always able to tweak the way your RSS outputs on your own end (both in the administration area, and manually changing the RSS output file). AWeber isn’t singled out for WP by any means though. Like FeedBurner, any RSS file will do.

  14. @David Leggett: Ah, of course, the one paragraph I failed to read. Go figure. :)

  15. So true, so true… Good job.

  16. Great post, very useful!

  17. Ronald Shapely May 13, 2009

    You may not believe this, but our non-profit’s users are more likely to understand email than RSS, and sign up for our emails 2 to 1 over our RSS feeds.

    Know your audience.

  18. @Ronald Shapely: Interesting to know. I think I am in the same boat with my reptile based audience at http://www.geckotime.com, which is why I created a spot to easily enter your email address. Now time to consider an alternative :).

  19. @Kristof: I agree with Kristof. I have been using Aweber for my RSS via email, but I’m not happy with it.

    I think it’s ridiculous to have to paste an entire post into the excerpt in order to send a full article via blog broadcast. Pasting your post into the excerpt box can wreak havoc with some themes, and it prevents you from using the excerpt for the reason it was intended. Why they don’t just check what your blog settings are, or allow you to tick a checkbox for summary or full text I can’t fathom.

    I’ve encountered some nasty bugs too. Aweber does seem to fix them, but they don’t seem to like admitting to them which I find disconcerting.

    I worked with MailChimp a while ago at one of my jobs, they were excellent to deal with. I think they have made lots of improvements since then too. Their support was great, and they had really nice tutorials too.

  20. very true my friend… Thank you for sharing.

  21. Interesting post – I read it straight through and had to wonder why this site and the site that David Leggett links to: Tutorial9 do indeed use Feedburner to distribute RSS by email and not aweber or the other options mentioned. Apparently it can be afforded, Just not the only option for regular connect? Hmmm, :-)

    Regardless, the main point in my book is to use RSS and learn to spread it effectively. I subscribe to several feeds by email – some are aweber and some are feedblitz and some are indeed are feedburner. What routes have you chosen to help people understand what RSS is and why they should learn how to make the most of it? Tips??

    Email + RSS does seem a minimal option and a full featured email solution presents a superb option for blending the two – Unique email content highlighting new posts + Feed subscribe option for people who want it now, want to syndicate, etc.

    I love RSS. I use a feed reader to quickly find content that means something for personal and work tasks at hand. That is the beauty. Email subscriptions to rss only last a short time before the relevance expires for me and I unsubscribe.

    Thanks again ;-)

  22. @Tim: Thanks for stopping by Tim.

    Just real quick I want to acknowledge your first point: UX Booth currently serves less than 2% of it’s total subscribers via email. Our viewers here don’t usually use Email subscriptions. While it would definitely be better for us to use a different system, we didn’t see the real value for our viewers, or the investment of time worth it on our end (yet).

    Tutorial9 is similar, but is actually making the switch to AWeber for Email feeds right now. It’s a bit more difficult since it started with FeedBurner and now has over 15,000 subscribers to make the switch.

    Other sites are using AWeber, and we can see the difference it makes with more personalized email.

  23. I just stopped using the Aweber system due to the cost but really don’t want to send my rss content out by email. I just think it would be a little robotic and impersonal. At least with Aweber you can customize your messages and your content. I got a lot of double optins and few unsubscribes. I think the rss to email would have people dropping you pretty quick.

  24. I know this is an old post, but I needed to make a comment in conjunction with Ronald Shapely.

    I actually prefer to receive updates via email than an RSS feed reader. It doesn’t matter if I’m using Google Reader, Bloglines, or an offline reader.

    It is the simplicity of having everything in one place. My Gmail Inbox.

    With an RSS to Email service, I get the subject of the post, and somewhere around 25 words with a link to teh article. I can quickly see what sites are updating.

    Yes, I know you can do this in an RSS reader. I just prefer to do everything via email.

    One more point. I moderate a Dutch Oven Cooking list on Yahoo groups. I’m still amazed at the number of people who have email, but can’t seem to subscribe to our group. There is just something simple about “Enter your email address here for updates” that people like.

    A great post and it has given me food for thought for some online projects I’m going to start in the near future.

    Will

  25. Aweber is great as it is the one used by most of prolific bloggers out there. But for starters, a free feedburner may just what they need. But let us see, I know the two will still revolutionize in the future.

  26. Has anyone had any success using sendFeed to customise the blog content prior to sending out via aweber?

    I find aweber template customisation for message broadcast to be a pain. You can’t upload a template and it doesn’t seem to support place holders/merge variables.

    Any ideas?

  27. I do not know but i just want to try maybe one of the alternative to RSS and see if their service is better. But i do not know what will be the reaction of my readers. Anyway, Thanks for this post. I love the design of your site.

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