I really didn't intend to right a second post today on RSS, but I'm fired up by a post from Tobi Elkin in Just an Online Minute called RSS versus Email. I noticed it in my email (yes I did write email) because the headline mirrored two posts I made a while back. The reason it was in my email and not on a RSS feed was because I was complacent and hadn't unsubscribed, but not any more. Why am I fired up? Well because of the interpretation of a study published by the Nielsen Norman Group called Email Newsletter Usability. The full study costs $398, but if you are like me you can read the 7 page executive summary for free.
The study as the name implies looks at email newsletter usability and does not focus on RSS versus email. There were three parts of the study and only the third looked at usability with an eyetracker study of RSS and email. In fact 6 out of the 7 pages of the summary focused on email. Hardly a study as mentioned in Just an Online Minute as "... the Nielsen Norman Group has a new report out on the subject. The report examines RSS feeds from mainstream users’ point of view." Want a couple of things left out from the Just an Online Minute Newsletter? How about these:
- According to the report there were 93 users in the study and that 65% of their newsletters were for personal and 40% were for business use (some viewers counted them as both). Good and sound numbers for a study on newsletters, but for RSS what does the summary say? On page 6 you'll find this data point - ".....RSS. In our most recent study, 82% of users had no idea what this term referred to. Some users were familiar with the general idea of feeds, even if they didn’t know the term “RSS.” ....This was typically because they were receiving feeds on their My Yahoo! page or a similar personalized portal." If I do my math correctly, 82% of 93 means that 76 people in the study didn't know what RSS means. More on that later.
- In the Just an Online Minute summary there is a quote from the study that says "Newsletters are a much more powerful medium than RSS feeds, and I would not be surprised if it turns out that companies make 10 times as much money from each newsletter subscriber,” Nielsen says in a statement, but the JOM email omitted this line right before the quote that says "We don’t have data to calculate the relative business value of a newsletter subscriber compared to a feeds subscriber, but I would not be surprised....". That seems like a big caveat to me from a statistician.
- As the study says, RSS is a cold medium in comparison with email newsletters which may be true for some, but written in the beginning of the study describing the third part of the research is this - ".....RSS readers to read news feeds. This lets us compare the newer medium of feeds with newsletters, which are now an established media form. When you describe something or someone as "cold" doesn't it normally mean you are not allowed or can't get to know them; perhaps someone or something that is not friendly or affectionate? Perhaps the cold description is because 82% don't know what RSS means and they compared it with an already established (and friendly) medium.
Why is that last point so significant? A while back when I originally wrote these posts, it was in response to an article from fellow MediaPost writer, Bill McCloskey, called The Trouble with RSS. As Bill wrote a while back in response to a reported 31% RSS penetration, "only 4 percent of that number are actually accessing RSS in what I would consider the traditional way: downloading an RSS reader and subscribing to news feeds." If you remember, I agreed with Bill that the penetration is really based on people using RSS in the traditional way and not fooled by newsfeeds in MyAOL. I think the same stringent criteria should also be applied to interpreting the current study.
Unless I found the wrong study or MediaPost has the full version which differs from the Executive Summary, I don't see why they would use the Email Newsletter Usability study for hammering RSS feeds. I included the link to the executive summary so you can read it yourself. Sure RSS is new and there are several changes needed to make it more friendly. I just don't think an Email Newsletter Usability study should be used to make judgments on a communications vehicle that is quickly evolving.
This post is already long enough, sorry, and I'll continue it another day. Until then, let's just say that I don't think this study should be hailed as a conquering hero in the so called RSS versus email battle. There are definitely gray areas where they can co-exist and other areas like when you need a secure communication that RSS is a viable alternative. The study is what it says it is, a very thorough and well thought out Email Newsletter Study not an opening blow in a boxing match.