RSS eNewsletters: Bridging the Gulf

by Ray Matthews on December 02, 2003 at 02:19 PM

Virtually every federal and state government agency has at least one newsletter; many publish several. I still receive a lovely printed newsletter at home from our state's Labor Commission. Because of the expense, however, print newsletters are now a rarity. I'd venture to say that most government newsletters are now found only in online formats such as HTML and/or PDF.

The problem unfortunately has always been 'who reads online newsletters?' It's the kiss of death for any business to depend exclusively on visitors stumbling upon their Web site. Governments don't seem to particularly care about Web traffic, but they should. We have important information and services that will benefit the health and welfare of the public...if the public only knew it was there.

So, a few years ago enterprising public information officers began sending out enewsletters via email, first in plain ASCII text, and then as cute HTML pages complete with graphics, templated content, and hot links. I even experimented myself using a service called Constant Contact to deliver eNewsletters and announcements regarding my state's Government Information Locator Service program.

The limitations are well known to those who have tried this. It's not always easy to shovel newsletter content into HTML templates. And because you want to limit your email news to a screen or two in size, you always have to prepare Web pages with detailed content for the briefs in the eNewsletter to link to. Then there is the problem of reaching an audience. There is a ceiling on the number of subscribers who learn of your eNewsletter and are willing to subscribe to it. And their willingness to stay subscribed is more a function of how little you spam them than anything else. In other words it's pretty ineffective, but it's the best alternative if you don't have much of an advertising budget.

It was, of course, until RSS happened on the scene. Weblogging software can now easily create dynamic Web content with minimal effort. The software produces XML/RSS feeds which can be syndicated. Scripts and add-ons can convert that content into eNews. All this is at the click of a mouse button. The weblogged content has the additional virtues of being archivable, web searchable, and immediately available to interested consumers via pings and trackbacks.

We've attained the information marketing Nirvana, or...not quite. Perhaps you have arrived there in your organization, but as I work with my government agencies, all of these pieces don't seem to come together just yet. The content people are still using their Web creation tools to create their newsletters, but getting them published via RSS has some hurdles.

Here come the marketers to the rescue. There is an emarketing firm IMN, Inc. (formerly iMakeNews) that has launched an RSS service (see their PDF press release and white paper) that integrates RSS into its existing eNewsletter and DirectBlog platforms. As an IMN customer you can now publish your eNewsletter content for distribution in multiple ways including email, the Web, or RSS feeds. With the IMH RSS Servive you use customized templates just as you would do with your Web newsletter. As the newsletter publisher, you set your eNewsletter to be published as an RSS feed at the same time you post it to the Web. The process is designed to be transparent. You use the same procedure to publish content simultaneously as an email, Web site, and RSS feed.

eLaw Marketing is another firm that offers a RSS feed templating to newsletter service. Each time you publish a new alert of newsletter, subscribers are notified and given a link to view the new online issue. Templates allow users to distribute fully formatted HTML newsletters by email. Their target audiences are law firms and bar associations.

While impressive, this isn't black magic, and not terribly difficult to duplicate. These newsletters are basically blogs. IMN's Informed Marketer News (and other examples) and eLm's samples are really just blogs formatted with newsletter characteristics such as a masthead and volume/issue numbers. Content can originate from an ordinary RSS feed (for example Release Notes and its feed). I suspect that a blogging system that supports templates, like Movable Type, would allow the creation of templates into which RSS feeds could be streamed. Then you could use mailing list software like Mailman or Lyris to distribute a fully formatted eNewsletter.

How many government agencies or agencies are now doing this by integrating the web authoring, blogging, and mailing list tools at their disposal? Have many organizations opted to go with a commercial solution such as that offered by IMN or eLm? Either way, the promise of instant, all-medium publishing of newsletters is here or at least closer to being realized than we may have thought.

We'd love to have you comment here on your eNewsletter publishing experiences and solutions or provide trackbacks so that we can link to a solution that you may have described at your site.

Comments

If anybody would like to use a blog to replace a newsletter, please contact me at 604 729 7924.

Examples of my work:

http://www.VanEats.com
http://developer.e-xact.com/
http://geekmail.com/blog/tiki-view_articles.php

Posted by: Roland Tanglao at December 12, 2003 03:57 PM

Our ListApp newsletter service is 6 years old. We integrated RSS feeds last year.

Posted by: Sean Brunnock at December 12, 2003 05:10 PM

I played with it a while.
I think the best idea for right now would be to set variables of who gets e-mail and who does not. As we all know, Rss feeds have capabilities to propigate web browsers and send e-mails. The recipient ranking system would establish where there comments would be ranked, and there would be different sites for each tier.
(Hint) They do not even have to know they are on an RSS feed. First remove the intimidation factor but increase their knowledge of how the system works by sending them a link to what they thought was a simple e-mail.

Let me know if I may help any.

Jason

Posted by: Jason Newcomb at December 28, 2003 10:11 PM

Yes. The newsletter is still an important cornerstone and probably a higher priority than RSS, since EVERYONE has email but we dont all use an RSS aggregator.

www.tractionsoftare.com - The Traction enterprise weblog software includes newsletter generation capability out of the box. On a per-user basis, it can produce a nicely formatted newsletter (title and first paragraph of each new article and comment) organized by priority then by project. Depending on Permission to read each project, each user may get a different newsletter. Each user may also set the frequency with which they want to receive the email.

If you like, you can have multiple newsletter formats (exposing more or less content, organizing as you like, different looks and feels etc..)

RSS feeds are also secure and may also be customized based on project(s), author(s), category(ies), and other parameters.

Posted by: Jordan Frank at January 6, 2004 02:42 PM

If your organization uses IBM Lotus Notes and Domino, we have developed an application that enables you to publish e-mail and Web newsletters as well as syndicate content via RSS feeds simultaneously.

This enables a Notes organization to reach its target audience in a format that the audience prefers.

Learn more at http://www.gallatin.com/knews.html.

Posted by: Todd Brehe at February 20, 2004 07:31 AM