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Using RSS to Deliver Newsletters
By Barbara J. Feldman

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Editor's note: Barbara J. Feldman publishes Surfing the Net with Kids and recently joined the growing list of publishers who have added Web-based RSS feeds to deliver newsletters without going through email. Ezine-Tips asked Barbara to explain why she added an RSS feed and to outline the process. You will need an RSS news aggregator, or reader, to view some material below; see the column for a link to a free one.

What are the two biggest problems facing email users today?>

Ironically, they are these:

  1. Spam
  2. Spam filters

Unsolicited email is flooding our in-boxes. Unfortunately, while trying to fix the problem, spam filters are blocking mail we want to receive, even, perhaps (gasp), our own newsletters.

It's a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. So, what's an email publisher to do? Rescue the baby, of course! To this end, many (myself included) are turning to a new delivery system: RSS.

RSS (which stands for a number of different things depending on whom you ask) is a document format that requires a special reader, because, as of today (and this will change), neither your existing browser nor your email client can read RSS.

Once you install an RSS news reader, it will poll your RSS subscription URLs such as the Surfnetkids newsletter and automatically deliver new issues to your desktop.

RSS avoids the dual problems of spam and spam filters, because you do not need to divulge your email address to anyone (no more spam) and only you control your list of subscriptions (sidestepping spam filters entirely.)

RSS: Pros and Cons

Many are familiar with RSS as a syndication format for blogs, because most popular blogging platforms automatically publish headlines, summaries, and links in an RSS format.

Newsletter publishers, however, are just beginning to use RSS as an email-replacement technology to deliver full-content feeds.

Was RSS designed to deliver full-content feeds? No. Is it the perfect technology for delivering such feeds? No. But it is already widely available, and its penetration is increasing. And, being nimble in online publishing is all about seizing the opportunities as they present themselves.

When calculating the pros and cons of adding RSS to my newsletter editions (I already publish in text and HTML), it seemed that the big pro was an opportunity to avoid email spam filters.

The cons are that there is no standard when it comes to placing full content in an RSS feed, and not all RSS news readers may be able to parse full content. (Doesn't this smack of the early days in HTML email?)

Another disadvantage is that RSS doesn't scale well, because 100,000 readers can mean hundreds of thousands of hits to a server as the RSS file is polled for updates. Oh, well. Technology and bandwidth are relatively cheap, and I will cross that bridge when I get there.

Another con for newsletter publishers is that RSS subscribers cannot be tallied in the same way as email subscribers. When discussing reader numbers with advertisers, you need to start thinking more like a Web site publisher.

Rely on your stats program to track unique page views of your RSS file. I concluded that actually getting a newsletter delivered to a reader was more important than simply being able to include a reader in a subscriber count.

Designing an RSS Newsletter

(Editor's note: You will need a news aggregator to view the first three links. If you don't have one, download and install the free beta version of FeedDemon for Windows. If you need help viewing the links, or you aren't running Windows, send an email message marked HELP! to suggestions@emailuniverse.comus and I'll send directions.)

When designing my RSS newsletter, I decided simpler was better. So, I followed my text newsletter template instead of my HTML template. But others include images in their RSS newsletters feeds, such as Rafat Ali's Newswire.

I also decided to place my entire newsletter in a single RSS tag instead of breaking it up into multiple items. On the other hand, Chris Pirillo's Lockergnome Windows Daily is an example of spanning a newsletter across multiple RSS items.

And last, I decided to break from my text newsletter format of fixed-width lines and use a variable width that will flow into whatever window size the reader is using.

Randy Cassingham's "This is True" is an example of an RSS newsletter with a fixed line width.

One last technical tip:

In order to place the needed HTML code (for clickable URLs and paragraph breaks) into the tag of your RSS file, you must either use escape characters or place your code within a CDATA section. Details can be found at W3Schools Online.

After you've designed and coded your first newsletter, be sure to test it in a few RSS readers. Remember, there is no standard; so, your results will vary from reader to reader. Also, validate the code. I found Mark Pilgrim and Sam Ruby's FEED Validator extremely useful. It parses RSS feeds, all the versions from 0.91 up to 2.0, and highlights any errors.

Learning from others is the best way to figure out RSS code. Most RSS files, but not all, can be viewed in a browser. If the RSS file you want to look at does not display in your browser, try the View Source option in your RSS news reader.

Another great place to learn more is Lockergnome's RSS Resources.

Announcing an RSS Newsletter

To make the announcement, I sent an extra edition of my newsletter on August 15, 2003 that explained the spam/spam filter problem and why I felt RSS was the solution.

Since my Surfing the Net with Kids audience is not technical, I assumed that my announcement would be their first introduction to RSS. If I were to be successful in convincing them to start using an RSS reader, they would need more than my weekly newsletter to justify making the move.

So, not only did I also include a list of six news readers, but I also mentioned six other publishers with interesting RSS feeds.

But, one announcement does not a successful launch make. So, I also added a mention of my RSS edition to these contact points:

Just to cover all the bases, I added it to my welcome confirmation email, too!

Submit Your RSS Feeds

All your RSS feeds (not just your newsletters) should be submitted to the following directories:

Tip contributed by Barbara J. Feldman

Barbara J. Feldman is a syndicated columnist and online publisher. Her weekly "Surfing the Net with Kids" column will be eight years old this fall and is published in newspapers nationally, on her Web site and via electronic newsletter. Contact Barbara here.

Original article copyright 2003 by Barbara J. Feldman; Ezine-Tips edition used with permission.

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