There has been a lot of confusion and misinformation about blogs and RSS, and about how they fit into a marketing program. Some people believe that all Web sites will become blogs, and that RSS will replace e-mail. Others believe they are both fads and will cease to exist in the next two years. E-mail, RSS and blogs can all work together to enhance most e-mail programs, not in the future but today.
So with all the hype and discussion around blogs and RSS feeds, I thought we should start by clearing the air and defining them.
According to Wikipedia, a blog is "a Web site in which items are posted on a regular basis and displayed in reverse chronological order... focused on a particular subject, such as food, politics, or local news."
According to the same source, an RSS feed is "a family of Web feed formats, specified in XML and used for Web syndication. They provide Web content or summaries of Web content together with links to the full versions of the content. RSS stands for Real Simple Syndication."
Blogs are not really what most marketers consider Web sites, because they do not usually create an online presence for a brand. Typically blogs focus on a specific topic and are updated frequently. Blog entries can be automatically categorized and archived, and allow readers to comment on entries or link to an entry from another blog.
RSS is really just a way to deliver blog entries. Much like e-mail, RSS feeds allow a user to view the subject or title of a blog entry. RSS readers are available for free as part of a browser (Firefox and Explorer 7, which is soon to be released) and as part of every portal site (My Yahoo, My MSN, Google Reader). Implementing an RSS feed as part of a blog only takes a few minutes, and most blogging software automatically provides it. Users can subscribe to RSS feeds by simply clicking a link and selecting the type of RSS reader that they use. Removing a feed is as simple as clicking the "x" next to the feed.
RSS feeds and blogs have some definite advantages over e-mail. RSS feeds are automatically updated within an RSS reader, eliminating most deliverability issues. Within an RSS reader they are categorized and not cluttered with things like personal e-mail or other offers. Blogs allow users to not only see the content related to the most recent entry, but also other entries by category. Blogs are searchable and draw a lot of organic search traffic that would have otherwise never been exposed to content. Blogs and RSS feeds are every bit as trackable as e-mail (if not more so) if you use the right tool.
There are definite disadvantages as well. RSS feeds are not widely used, understood or accepted by the general Internet audience. Nor is the timing of RSS delivery as controllable as the delivery of e-mail. Blogs are limited in their layout and creative execution. Tracking RSS feeds and blogs requires integration with additional tracking systems. Thus they are a poor substitute for e-mail.
However, blogs and RSS feeds can work hand-in-hand with e-mail marketing programs. When integrated properly, e-mail copy can reference a blog that provides more detail. Links from e-mails to blogs will not only allow a user to get more information, but also to find additional content available within categories of interest. Educating and encouraging e-mail subscribers to subscribe to an RSS feed can eliminate delivery problem and may increase response rates due to increased visibility. As RSS feeds and blogs become more accepted by the general Internet population, marketers that have integrated these tools into their programs will have a "first mover advantage" over competitors, who will be left having to catch up.
A few things to consider when integrating blogs and RSS feeds into your program: most RSS readers will "age" entries, so if you're not sending out e-mails on (at a minimum) a monthly basis, it may not be worth it. Typically, blogs allow for comments. These comments can be controlled; but if you control too much, other writers of blogs may quickly identify your lack of "openness" and let others know, potentially damaging your brand. Before you go full steam ahead, you may want to set up your own Yahoo account, subscribe to a few e-mail marketing blogs and maybe set up your own blog. This can be done for free and can really help you get educated by doing.
Good luck, and get blogging!