Avoiding the Spam Trap: Get Your Message Delivered!

Your message is not being delivered.

If you send emails to your customers, I have some bad news for you. Not all of your emails are making it to your intended recipients. Between ISP spam filters, spam-blocking email servers, spam-killing email software, and email content filtering everywhere in between, the chances are high that your messages just aren't making it past all of these roadblocks.

Recent studies show that opt-in subscriptions are erroneously spam blocked at rates of 17% (according to Return Path) to 38% (according to Mail.com). So, 17% to 38% of the e-mail you send to people who want it or even pay for it in many cases, does not reach them. Just by choosing the wrong words or phrases, or sending the wrong type of attachment, your email can become a "false positive", and end up filed into some garbage bin where it gets mixed up with various offers to increase the size of some random body part -- never again to be seen.

These false positives can occur even if the intended recipient is very interested in receiving your message, even if their life (or livelihood) depends upon receiving that message. Even if automated spam filters don't destroy your message, as in-boxes fill up with more and more garbage, it's becoming common for people to simply overlook wanted mail and inadvertently delete it.

It's only going to get worse.

When the new federal law dubbed "The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003" (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) was passed in December, many were startled and confused by the apparent legalization of spam. Now, as long as an emailer complies with the law regarding header falsification, misleading titles, and opt-out procedures, it would seem that marketing through spam has become legitimate!

The CAN-SPAM law only restricts the legality and processes involved in sending Unsolicited Commercial Email (UCE). There is no implied responsibility on behalf of any provider to guarantee delivery of all messages. In fact, ISPs are given the right to filter and block email any way they deem necessary according to their policies. The law doesn't burden ISPs to discriminate whether the email was permission-based or unsolicited. They can block incoming bulk email simply on the basis of a single complaint.

And if that wasn't bad enough, the CAN-SPAM Act suggests a bounty of 20% or more of fines collected go to the people who turn in spammers. As more "offenders" are reported, more ISPs are blacklisted, and the more likely your message will end up vaporized long before it hits home.

So now, with more and more marketing efforts involving purchased and shared opt-in lists, more and more companies able to legally spam, and more and more Unsolicited Commercial E-Mail floating around on the internet, there is bound to be a reaction, and that reaction is sure to be quite strong. Following the Red Queen Principle, as spammers continue to find a means to push out spam -- ISPs, hosts, and email packages will continue to improve their defenses, as well, blocking more mail than ever before.

Has E-mail Come to an End?

No one could have imagined that things would get this bad. Spammers and virus authors are rapidly crippling email. Even though e-mail was once dubbed the "killer app" of the Internet, some doomsayers are going so far that viruses, spam, and spam filters are joining forces to bring about the death of email. The theory is that, eventually, inboxes will become so full of unwanted garbage emails, and so many desired messages will be deleted along the way, that email will become useless.

Some e-mail publishers are considering giving up on e-mail altogether and finding other ways to deliver their message. While this may sound pretty extreme, the spam wars are an extreme situation. And extreme situations call for drastic measures...

RSS to the Rescue

One such alternative is RSS, which stands for either Really Simple Syndication, or Rich Site Summary, depending upon with whom you're speaking. A primary reason that RSS is a viable alternative is that since readers select their RSS Feeds, spam is no longer an issue. This is because RSS works a little bit differently than email, using pull, instead of push, technology.

By notifying people interested in your content, as well as web sites that collect and package content announcements (called aggregators), you "feed" them your content. From this process we get the term "RSS feed." By providing an RSS feed, another site may pick up your "news" through your feed and syndicate it. Only the feed publisher can designate what information gets into the feed, and the only information the subscriber pulls down is what the publisher puts there.

If email continues on its self-destruct course, RSS could very well become the new standard, either replacing email subscriptions or, more likely, as an email supplement.

What are RSS Feeds?

An RSS feed is a Web-accessible XML file containing a listing of web pages with related news or information. RSS is basically a stream of raw data: content completely separated from presentation. The XML-based RSS feed contains content information, such as the headline, description, an excerpt, and the URL where the subscriber can find the content in its entirety. Once uploaded to a website, the RSS feed should be validated for completeness and accuracy. Once it is validated, the feed can then be submitted to engines.

A sample feed can be seen at: http://www.EnvisionSoftware.com/Articles/Index.xml

Consuming the Syndicated RSS Feed

Individual subscribers can view RSS feeds in special feed reader software, called a news reader. Additionally, webmasters can syndicate your news feeds to their website using an aggregator. Both aggregators and news readers consume RSS feeds, presenting them in a format for use by humans in pretty much the same way Web browsers work with web pages.

To subscribe to a newsfeed, the subscriber tells their feed reader to periodically poll a certain site's RSS feed file, pasting the URL for the RSS feed into their feed reader, much like bookmarking a page in your Web browser.

Then, to read the news, the feed reader visits the subscribed feeds, grabs the latest information, and displays a sorted list of the latest headlines from each source. Sometimes the reader will show brief descriptions of the content, but it always links to the full content on the publisher's site.

Not quite ready for prime time

Even though it's been around for a decade, RSS technology is still in its infancy. This immaturity presents a few challenges.

The biggest issue today is that mainstream web and e-mail clients do not yet support RSS feeds. Expect to see some movement in this direction as the RSS movement swells.

There are lots of freestanding news readers out there, and they each have their unique shortcomings. Over the next year or two, RSS software should improve significantly and RSS will become a more robust publishing platform.

RSS usage and news aggregator adoption is still very limited. So, RSS will not be a complete solution without greater subscriber participation.

RSS is text-only. Attractive layout and graphics cannot make up for poor quality content in the world of news feeds.

The RSS Business Model

Content publishers need to determine how to make RSS content distribution profitable. Just as there are paid e-mail newsletters, there can be paid RSS news feeds. It's just another file that resides on a web server, so it can be served from a password protected web site. However, with a paid RSS newsfeed, readership is reduced, as subscribers are limited to using RSS aggregators or news readers which support authentication.

While content publishers may be afraid of RSS, the business model of e-mail publishing doesn't really change using RSS. Readers still see the same content, with the same design, layout, and ads in an HTML newsletter. The trick is to have content which strikes the reader's fancy -- headlines and descriptions have to be worthy of clicking on, before the readers will see the full content.

What Does The Future Hold for RSS?

RSS has gained quick acceptance in certain circles such as small technology companies, innovative consulting organizations, and self-publishers. Even Microsoft has started publishing RSS feeds without attempting to strong-arm themselves into a dominant position, thus far.

AOL's upcoming AOL 10 software will support RSS technology. Microsoft will most likely support RSS in Outlook and Outlook Express, similar to its current support for newsgroups. Additionally, web hosting tools like Geocities offer tools to syndicate RSS feeds.

It may take some time, however, for RSS to gain momentum in the IT departments of midsize-to-large companies, which are typically slower to adopt nascent technologies like RSS.

Should you consider RSS for your publication?

While RSS may not be an immediate replacement for the email newsletter, it will become a powerful choice in corporate and personal communication in the very near future. Once the big guys adopt RSS as a content sharing and distribution medium, it will gain greater acceptance. The benefits of RSS will be widespread, and full-featured RSS news readers will be prevalent.

Moving your subscriber base from e-mail newsletters to RSS feeds might be a tall order at this juncture. For now, it's up to publishers to sell readers on the RSS concept, and explain how it alleviates the pain of spam.

Whether you decide to convert to RSS full force or simply offer RSS as an alternative for your subscribers, it's important to realize that e-mail is starting to lose its luster, and now is a very good time to include RSS in your publishing repertoire.

About The Author

Daiv Russell is a Software Engineering Strategist with Envision Software, a software project management and development outsourcing company committed to helping information technology organizations solve problems, increase revenues, and reduce costs by guiding software development teams through project management chaos. Envision publishes Luminary, a monthly software project management newsletter.

[email protected]

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