3 min read

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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