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Bye Bye Email?

Russell Shaw
Bye Bye Email? Russell Shaw

Going forward from the recent Blog Business Summit in Seattle, two powerful messages have been reverberating through the marketing world:

  1. Blog feeds are rapidly replacing email as a form of proactive marketing communications

  2. Marketers wishing to post their own blogs should not approach the form as another one-way communications medium, but should plan for their blogs to offer two-way dialog.

As to the first point: Spam=bad. RSS=good.

"Email marketing is dead," declares Chris Pirillo, a frequently quoted online marketing and blogging industry consultant based in Canoga Park, Calif. One of the keynote speakers at the Blog Business Summit, Pirillo admits he hasn't always been that skeptical about email as a communications platform. In fact, way back in 1999, Pirillo wrote the best-selling "Poor Richard's E-mail Publishing" guidebook.

So what has changed, and why is blogging often a more effective marketing communications medium than email?

Watching Pirillo speak at the Summit, one got the impression of someone who was a true believer -- but no more. With an animated tone and a hyperbolic stage-pace, Pirillo called out his indictments of email's lost effectiveness.

"Filters are killing 25 percent of legitimate (email) deliveries," Pirillo pointed out. He was referring, of course, to the practice many business users have of setting spam filters so high, that even potentially lucrative emails (such as legitimate inquiries from prospective customers) are grabbed by spam filters and never reach their intended recipients.

As a result of these ramped up spam filters, Pirillo noted that he sees email as an "increasingly polluted channel" in which emails from unknown parties arrive at the server with a filter-ordained, "guilty before proven innocent" presumption. Because of this, "conversion rates are decreasing, blacklists continue to grow, and we have to pay for whitelisting services," he added.

Whitelisting, incidentally, is the practice some corporate email managers have of only allowing mail through from a pre-set list of email addresses. That's a step further than blacklisting, which at least on faith, is supposed to bar the door to obvious spam addresses -- such as, say, the hypothetical [email protected].

As Pirillo and others noted, RSS has come to the rescue.

Depending on who you ask, RSS stands either for "Really Simple Syndication," or "Rich Site Summary." At its core, RSS is a small bit of computer code that pushes blog posts from a web server out to the blogosphere, where they can be retrieved almost instantaneously by blog reader web sites and software that users download or sign up for. After signing up or installing blog reader software, users can specify keywords, or even specific blogs, that they are interested in.

Some of these blog reader tools, such as NewsGator and Pluck, can then be set by the user to send out email or pop-up "alerts" when an item that contains a keyword of interest is posted to a subscribed blog. For example, a tourism magazine about Hawaii could receive a blog post from an interactive ad agency about a newly announced restaurant in Maui. If that agency had attempted to send the magazine an email about the new restaurant, it might have been caught in the spam filter.

"RSS is 'push' without the 'proprietary,' Pirillo pointed out. "Right now, it complements email, (but) tomorrow, it will replace news delivery."

Spam, which is the 800-pound gorilla responsible for most enterprise email blacklists and whitelists, is impossible via RSS. "Because the user controls his or her subscription, RSS subscriptions imply confirmation that he or she wants to receive your message," Pirillo added.

While it only takes a minute or two to post a blog message, the most effective blog posts come with a fair amount of forethought and follow-up metrics. Those were key points made by blogging industry consultant Molly Holzschlag at the Summit.

Holzschlag kept reinforcing the point that potential marketing communications bloggers should not be seduced by the medium's ease of authorship, posting and distribution. "Sure, (blogs are) a basic idea, but without a goal, you can fail miserably," she said. "Know very specifically what you want to do with your blog. If you can't put your idea into a few sentences, you probably are trying too hard."

As did others, Holzschlag sounded a familiar refrain: update your blog regularly. Without such feeding and watering, people's attention spans will wander, and they will forget about the blog you have worked to build. "Make sure you really can post regularly. Your blog will die without regular content, period," she added.

To foster potential customer dialog with your blog, Holzschlag recommended comment and Trackback/Pingback features.

Comments, of course, are features that make it possible for readers to offer feedback to your blog posts. With comments, for example, someone reading your blog post could indicate interest or make a suggestion that you might wish to follow up on. That could be the start of a new business relationship.

Most blog authoring tools include comment functionality.

"Comment systems are an extremely powerful means of building community easily," Holzschlag pointed out. Still, her endorsement of comment systems came with a powerful "yes, but" caveat: Make sure you have someone in place that can "moderate" them. As with online discussion list moderators, a blog moderator usually has a password that enables him or her to delete potentially negative or harmful posts from readers.

Trackback mechanisms automatically "ping," or notify, specialized blog indexes and search engines when new items are posted. Technorati, Weblogs.com and Feedster are three of the most prominent of these indexes. Users of these indexes sometimes look for blog posts much in the same way that standard search-engine visitors query for specific search terms.

"Professional web sites should always ping the main services. Most high-end blog software automatically pings several services by default," Holzschlag said.

In most blog comment systems, comments from readers are added to the blog. Because of the scripting that most blogs use, these posts become part of the blogosphere and can be retrieved by blog reader software and blog-specific search engines.

As a result, blogging has become "a new form of one-to-one marketing, but one not always dictated by brand," said Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing and customer satisfaction officer at Cincinnati-based blog marketing consulting and analysis firm Intelliseek, Inc. "It has concentrated more power in (customer) 'influencers,' and thus requires a new targeting mindset."

That perspective ties in with those of others at the Summit, who collectively reinforced the notion that blog posts are not one-way, but rather a two-way means of communication.


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