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Depending on the time of the day a friend, a colleague, a wise guy. The beauty of the world is its sense of humor to show humans their way by letting them search their own.


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Why web feeds are better than email newsletters

When I look in my mailbox and registration forms around the web one thing is essential: Everyone wants to get back to me. And everyone wants to do that by email. From web shops where I buy a single item explicitly without creating an account, to blogs and even portfolio websites. Everyone wants to lure me into their newsletter to be able to send me emails I never read.

Are they after me as potential customer? Hopefully. Otherwise they just collect my email to sell or leak it to spammers. But do you know what really turns me off: When companies send me emails I’m not interested in. I literally never decided to go for a company or product because they send me their information via email. But I decided to not go for a company or a product because they decided to send me emails quite aggressively.

But enough of the ranting, let’s ask the important question: How should you, as a company, blogger or website owner keep people in the loop without annoying them?

Web feeds

As you might already know from an earlier article, I’m a huge fan of feeds. RSS and Atom feeds allow you to provide structured data of your content, which can then be read by Atom and RSS feed readers. Those feed readers poll your website from time to time to discover if there was new content and then present this to the users.

Almost like a newsletter, heh? Just provide an article per week in your RSS feed and suddenly you provide the same content to your users, but without people being annoyed about spam.

Spam and other problems of email newsletters

Newsletters, as already mentioned in the beginning have a variety of problems. They are expensive, they are annoying, they are complicated and they provide little actual value to your users.

They are expensive. Newsletters are not for free. You may already run a mail server but you shouldn’t risk your mail server’s reputation for your newsletter. Therefore you need an external provider for that, like Mailchimp and Sendgrid. They of course charge you additional fees based on the amount newsletter subscribers and how much management capabilities you want. Or you run the management yourself and only send through large providers like Amazon SES. But those are also unhappy when you generate a large amount of rejected emails, so you have to take care of your subscribers and make sure they provide valid and working mail addresses.

They are annoying. As a user it turns out, most newsletters you sign up for are not really interesting. But due to the legal situation it’s already annoying to sign up for one. “Double-opt-in” is the buzzword for this. It means that your users enter their email address on your website, then get a confirmation mail and after clicking a link email they become actually subscribed.

They are even more annoying. As the author of the newsletter you are really bound to a lot of rules. You are limited by the HTML elements that are allowed in HTML emails, which is also not standard HTML from your web-browser. It renders different in each mail client and mail client version out there and when you have people like me on your subscriber list, you get bug reports like “Your click this button”-text is not a link in plain-text mails. Or you are like other newsletters I got and look really unprofessional because the plain-text version of your newsletter displays a “Plain-text version goes here”-dummy text.

They are complicated. Signing up is as already mentioned annoying and if not done via double-opt-in, a safe way to get sued. Same goes for unsubscribing. And in the world of newsletters that enter my mailbox from day to day, I see tons of examples where authors don’t understand email. As already mentioned: Missing plain-text versions. Template variables in plain-text emails, because your converter doesn’t understand JavaScript or CSS. You need to setup a server backend for subscription management, sending out the emails and not getting blacklisted, integrate it with your content platform, …

They provide little value to your users. Let’s be honest, the main party that benefits from a newsletter is you, as a publisher or company. Because it reads quite shiny to say “We collected 10000 email addresses from potential customers”. As a user, I get your content into my inbox. Which according to my experience, most people don’t even want. And how do newsletters present this content: In the crappiest way possible, which means you put ton of work in a shiny newsletter that is used by people to open your website because it’s close to impossible to read in a mail client anyway.

How web feeds are better for all of this

Web feeds make things simple. It’s a simple document that you can provide on your web server and most CMS solutions have it built-in or a plugin for it, which means it’s cheap, it’s easy, it’s automatically discoverable and users are on their own terms.

They are cheap. Web feeds are served as part of your web page. Having a special document on your website, that provides all the content you want to push out. No external providers to pay, no people to pay for maintaining the subscriber list, …. Tell the person that designs your website to add a template for this document and you are done.

They are easy. You have one document format to deal with. If it’s valid RSS it’ll display in basically all clients. You don’t have to take care of subscriber lists, protect email addresses or deal with legal issues like double-opt-in or unsubscribe links.

They are discoverable. Usually you have somewhere on your page a link to your web feed. That’s something people can click or copy to their web feed readers. But you can also just add a <link> tag to the head of your HTML and search engines as well as plugins and feed reader themselves can discover them when visiting the page.

<link rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml" title="Sheogorath's Blog" href="https://shivering-isles.com/feed.xml">

They allow users to be on their own terms. Subscribing to a web feed is done by a user owned service. Be it a client on their device or an online service that provides them with the feed. Those clients take care of keeping users in the loop and allows them to organize feeds as they like. It also keeps your users more private, as they don’t have to share an email address with you. No user data, no problems with GDPR. Just handle feed readers like any other HTTP client.

How can email newsletters be replaced by web feeds

First of all, you should check if your CMS already provides an RSS or Atom feed. If so, link it in your theme and allow people to discover it. If not, check for a plugin or an extension to generate it. Bonus points for static site generators: Check my template for Jekyll.

Given that I convinced you to try web feeds, you might wonder how to convert existing subscribers. Here is the good news: If you don’t want to, you don’t have to. There are plenty of services, including those email newsletter services, that offer “RSS2email”-functionality. This will allow you to focus on the web feed but deliver your content to your existing subscriber base. Maybe still hint them to the web feed as it reduces your cost.

And finally get yourself on some of those feed aggregators to get your content to an even broader audience. With all this done, you can throw away your email newsletter and save yourself a lot of headache, while doing good for everyone by reducing spam.

Unexpected addition: As I just had to proof to myself it’s also a lot easier to fix a mistake using an RSS feed, because only clients that already downloaded a wrong feed might display a wrong or too early published article.

Photo by Juliana Malta on Unsplash