Why newsletters are email not RSS

Some friends were recently discussing newsletters and one raised the question of why newsletters are done (largely) as email instead of blog posts shared via RSS. I’m going to answer that question in this post. Some of the answers are my own reasoning for sending Newsletter Fiasco as an email. Other answers are what I know or reasonably assume are the motivations for other newsletter senders. And, yes, many newsletters are also available via RSS, even if that’s not the intended distribution mechanism.

Email is universal

Approximately everyone who might want to read your newsletter has an email address. For all its shortcomings, email is the best example of decentralized, standards-driven digital communication. RSS, especially post-Google-Reader tends to skew nerdy. Many of my tech enthusiast friends use RSS readers of some kind. Most of my other friends don’t. Social media platforms have supplanted RSS for a lot of people. If you’re distributing via RSS, you’ve already narrowed your potential audience quite a bit.

Email can wait

I won’t pretend that my usage of RSS is generalizable to all RSS users, but here’s how I use RSS. Mostly, I use the Feedly widget in my browser to tell me when I have unread items. A few times a day, I scan through the unread items and open the ones that I want to read. Then I mark the rest as read. I may not read the open tabs right away, but I generally do it in short order. RSS, then, is an “I’ll read it now or I’ll read it never” proposition. And the longer I go between checking my feeds, the lower the percentage of articles I’ll read.

On the other hand, I might leave a newsletter unread in my email inbox for a few days. This is particularly true for The Sunday Long Read, which is full of great articles that probably require more than a few minutes to read. Sometimes I’ll let a couple of them pile up before I have a chance to sit down and look at them. That doesn’t work well with how I consume RSS.

Email can be forwarded

Forwarding is a key part of the email experience. This is bad when it’s an unhinged conspiracy from a relative (although I only get those via Facebook Messenger these days), but good when you want to share a newsletter you liked. And because it’s universal you can share it with anyone easily (as opposed to sharing on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and … ).

Email feels more personal and direct

Readers understand that the newsletter isn’t written directly to them in particular. But because it comes to their inbox, it can feel more personal. Plus, many newsletter platforms allow for personalization. You can greet all your readers by their name. Or give them stats about how close they are to earning the next swag item by sharing their unique referral code with friends.

Email can be tracked

As a newsletter reader, you probably don’t love this one. But as a newsletter writer, it can be incredibly valuable. A lot of people who write newsletters are doing it in service of a , either their personal brand or a professional brand. This means it’s important to know not only how many people read the content, but who. And while this may feel a little icky, I argue that it’s way less icky than web cookie tracking. It’s a compromise level of icky.

For Newsletter Fiasco, I don’t look at the stats. I have no idea what my open and click rates are. I have never looked to see who is clicking what links. Let’s be honest, I started my newsletter because I wanted to be cool like the other people who had newsletters. That anyone reads it is always a welcome surprise.

But when I worked in marketing, it was important to know who was clicking what links. If they were current customers, it was just nice to see they liked us enough to pay us and also read our newsletter. But for potential customers, seeing what items from our news roundup interested them helped our sales team make the pitch that mattered to them specifically. If they only ever clicked articles about GCP, why waste time telling them about our AWS-specific features? If nobody ever clicked the links about job schedulers, we’d stop putting them in the newsletter.

Even unsubscribes can give you useful information. Many unsubscribe pages offer an optional one-question survey: why are you unsubscribing? If someone stops visiting your blog, all you know is that they’re not visiting anymore. Well, you know that the views are down, assuming the person who left isn’t offset by a new reader. That churn number can be informative, too.

This is what a “newsletter” is

There’s probably some amount of “this is how it’s always been” here, too. Newsletters were a thing you printed and sent to people in the analog era, so that’s what they are in the digital era, too. A newsletter distributed via blog is called a blog. In that sense, the name “newsletter” is more about the distribution mechanism than the content. A good example of this is Jim Grey’s weekly “Recommended Reading” blog post. The content could easily be a newsletter, except it’s not because it’s a blog post.

Are these good reasons?

I leave that up to you, Dear Reader. I won’t claim that any of these reasons are particularly good or bad. They’re just the reasons the person producing the newsletter would use email instead of a blog.

Does the death of Bloglines signal the death of RSS?

In a blog post last week, Ask.com announced that they were shutting down the Bloglines service.  This has lead some to conclude that RSS is dying.  Do Twitter, Facebook, and aggregator sites like Fark and Reddit obviate the need for RSS?  For me, at least, the answer is clearly “no.”

There’s no doubt that I find many interesting news articles through those methods (although I get more value in the discussions on Fark and Reddit than I do from the articles themselves), but at the core this operates based on what others find interesting.  Sure, in the case of Twitter and Facebook, the posts I see are probably from people with similar interests, but I want to make sure I get the posts that I want to see.  Social media/news aggregator sites are great for finding new sites, but pretty lousy for following them.

Visiting each site on a regular basis to check for new content isn’t exactly a beneficial use of my time, either.  I currently have 85 subscriptions in my Google Reader account.  Some of them haven’t updated in weeks (or months!), while 13 update more than once per day.  Visiting each site to find that some have many updates for me to catch up on while even more have nothing new sounds like a recipe for frustration.

Of course, many sites post to Facebook and Twitter when a new post is up (I do the same thing), but that lacks state.  I’ve got no way of telling by looking at a Tweet or Facebook post if I’ve read the article or not.  Social media is a great tool for sharing sites that I or others find interesting, but it doesn’t work well when trying to catch up on a few days of missed posts.  With an RSS service like Google Reader, it’s possible to access the latest posts from your favorite sites from multiple devices and always know which have been read.

So is RSS dead?  Hardly.  RSS will continue to drive podcasts and blog reading for many people, regardless of what Ask.com feels like doing.

Why am I giving my work away for free?!

Recently, I began writing a regular weather blog for the local newspaper.  I’m not getting paid for this, so people may wonder why I’m giving free content to a for-profit organization.  I asked myself this very question, and the answer is that I don’t find the terms sufficiently objectionable.  Although the blog appears on the Journal & Courier website, they likely don’t make too much money off the ad revenue.  And while I don’t make any money either, I get the chance to refine and showcase my writing skills for a different audience than I currently have, and I get the chance to bring a little bit of traffic here (maybe I should start selling ads).  Of course there’s always the joy of sharing my knowledge, proving a public service, and keeping all of that meteorology I learned in school in my head a little longer.  Finally, I’m a compulsive favor-doer.

More than any of that, though, I am philosophically in favor of sharing information.  The vast majority of the writing I do is released under some form of the Creative Commons licenses.  The Fedora Project requires me to use the CC-BY-SA license, which does not prohibit commercial use.  In that sense, writing documentation for Fedora and writing my weather blog both could result in people who are not me making money off my work.  That’s fine, because I’m not doing it for money (although if someone wants to leave an envelope of cash on my doorstep, that’s okay).  In both cases, I consider the free access to my effort to be fair trade.  My Fedora work is my way of contributing to the project that provides me with free (both gratis and libre) software that I use on a daily basis.  The writing I do for the Journal & Courier I see as contributing to the betterment of my society (or at least the lowering of my blood pressure. Weather-related stupidity angers me quite effectively).  The fact that one is a non-profit and the other is for-profit is not a consideration for me.

I am a firm believer in freedom for users, but I also believe that content creators should be free to license their works as they see fit.  Copyleft licenses like the GPL are preferable to more restrictive licenses, but if someone wants to put a restrictive license on his work, that right should be available.  In each case, a decision must be reached as to what is and is not acceptable.  In the cases I’ve discussed here, I have determined that, for my own criteria, the terms are acceptable.  The nice thing about volunteer work is that if I determine at some point that the terms are no longer tolerable, I can simply stop contributing.  In the meantime, I hope as many people as possible enjoy the fruits of my labor, and I look forward to enjoying the works of others.

There’s no such thing as too much blogging

At least, I hope there isn’t.  If there’s an upper limit to the amount that a person can safely blog, I might run up against it soon.  It’s been an exciting week in FunnelFiascoLand.  In addition to all of the storms we’ve been having, and a sizable to-do list both professional and personal, I received some news.  The first news is that I’ve been selected for the LISA ’10 blog team.  In November, I’ll be off to cloudy San Jose, California where I’ll be writing multiple posts per day for the duration of the conference.  Additionally, I’ve been told I might have a few writing assignments in advance of LISA in order to help promote the event.

A bit earlier in the week, I was asked by the Managing Editor of the local newspaper if I would be willing to write a weather blog on their website.  Since I am incapable of turning down requests for more work, I readily agreed.  This is a voluntary/slave labor/public service matter, but I’m trying to finagle a fedora with a “press” tag out of the deal, or maybe I can score press credentials to outdoor events. The thought process behind my willingness to do this, and some discussion of licensing issues involved, is a blog post that will probably appears in the next week or two.  In the meantime, my “Weather Watch” blog starts on www.jconline.com/blogs today.  I plan to update it twice per week, on Mondays and Thursdays.

It seems my writing is starting to get noticed, and that pleases me greatly.  I’ve still got a long way to go until I catch up to my great uncle Ralph, the New York Times best-seller and a Pulitzer nominee, but it’s exciting to know that there are people out there who care about what I have to say.  (Of course, I know my loyal ones of readers here have always cared about my thoughts. You guys are awesome).  What this means for me is a fair deal of extra work, but it’s exciting and I’m really looking forward to it.

What do I actually read?

My long-time readers (I’ll call them “Matt” and “Shelley”) might recall that I wrote a post a long time ago about the importance of reading.  I’m too lazy to go find it and put a link here, but that doesn’t really matter anyway.  I know that it’s important to read, but I thought it might be interesting to see what I actually do read.  Like much of the rest of my life, I let Google handle this for me.  Google Reader has a nifty trends feature which allows you to see some information about what feeds you actually read. So what do we know?

My most popular friend is Matt Simmons, with 87 other Google Reader users subscribing to his feeds.  By comparison, I have nine.  On the other hand, there are 52 Google Reader users subscribed to this blog. Hi, everyone! I’m guessing a lot of you started reading this because of the many re-tweets I got from Friday’s post. I hope I don’t let you down.  While you’re here, you might try reading Journal & Courier reporter Amanda Hamon’s blog — I’m the only person using Google Reader to follow it.  Of course, she doesn’t update too often. Unlike Slashdot, which is the most active of my feeds with over 23 items per day.

None of that answers the question of what I read myself.  Well, in terms of absolute numbers, I’ve read more of Boiled Sports than anything else, with 47 read items in the past 30 days.  Hammer and Rails, Hitchin’ On, Slashdot, and Maemo News round out the top five.  On a percentage basis, there are several items where I’ve read every post in the past month.  Only counting feeds with 4 or more posts, I’ve read all of Hitchin’ On and Hippie In Training (the finest environmental blog I’ve read, and I’m not just saying that because my wife writes it).  I’ve also read 94% of Boiled Sports, 86% of Sara Spelled Without An ‘H’, 82% of Kassy_ and 52% of Chris Siebenmann’s blog.

From this, it seems clear that I mostly use my RSS feeds to follow sports and keep in touch with friends.  I’d like to start adding some more, especially feeds pertaining to high-performance and high-throughput computing.  I’m open to anything worthwhile and/or entertaining though (which reminds me, I need to add The Bloggess to my list) so if you have any must-reads, please let me know in the comments.

And speaking of comments, I remarked to my wife last night that I had over 50 Google Readers users subscribed and she was amazed since I never seem to have any comments.  I told her that either no one actually read my blog after subscribing or that they all felt that I say everything that needs to be said.  I like to think it is the latter.

Pointless filler, now with 23% more pictures.

Today, I submitted my blog to the local newspaper for possible inclusion in the semi-regular article they do about local bloggers.  The piece always includes an excerpt from a recent piece.  How awesome would it be if this paragraph got printed?  The newspaper talking about my blog talking about my newspaper.  It’s almost enough to make one’s head swim, except that it really isn’t.

So what’s the point of this post?  Filler!  I’ve got a few posts working their way around my head, but nothing that’s ready for a Monday morning [self-imposed] deadline.  So let’s take a look at a few random pictures I have.

Bunny cake

A bunny cake that my wife made for Easter when we were in college.

My foot in the sand.

My foot in the sand.

Get your damn vessel out of the swim area.

Get your damn vessel out of the swim area.

Reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life

The title is a quote from Joseph Addison, according to the good folks at the Richmond Public Schools.  Addison was a 17th and 18th century poet, but were he around today, he might have said it is a basic tool in being a good sysadmin.  If you don’t spend a good portion of your work week reading, you’re either doing it wrong or you’re overworked.  So what should you read?  Why, a little bit of everything, of course.

Each morning, I read through my log reports.  I get a lot of important information from a LogWatch report generated by my central log server.  I can see who logged in from where, and where failed logins (read: SSH attacks) came from.  A list of packages that got updated is given, as well as miscellaneous messages that I might want to know about.  Of course, I could look at the report for each individual host, but a centralized server makes life much easier.

Keeping up on the news is important, too.  Technology news is important too, but general news of the world.  Why?  Well, because I like to know what’s going on.  I guess you could do without it, but why?  Fark.com, Slashdot, and Reddit are all good places to get both nerdy and non-nerdy information, as well as discussion by people who (sometimes!) can bring more information to the table than the article itself will provide.

Since this is a blog, I am morally required to mention that blogs are absolutely necessary for sysadmins.  There’s probably a blog or several from the vendor of your OS of choice, as well as your critical applications. Plenty of other sites have blogs, too, but what may be the most interesting are the personal blogs of your peers.  When you’re a new sysadmin, you probably don’t know much outside of your own environment.  Reading what others are doing is a quick and easy way to help expand your horizons.  I have to mention specifically Matt Simmons’ Standalone Sysadmin blog.  I found it by accident a few weeks ago, and have since become an avid reader.  Having worked in academia all of my professional life, I often don’t see things from the perspective of someone working in the private sector.

There’s another source of information that can be very helpful.  There’s probably a building in your county that your taxes fund and it’s full of dead trees.  That’s right: your public library.  I’ve been visiting the library fairly regularly to check out books for recreational reading.  Today I had a sudden revelation: the library has technical books, too!  So I’ve decided to check out a technical book when I visit.  I’d like to read at least two per month, in order to expand and deepen my knowledge.

So what’s the point of all this?  READ!