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According to Chris Pirillo, Web site author and self-made Internet millionaire, e-mail as a marketing tool is "dead."

This is a bold statement coming from a man whose success can largely be attributed to e-mail newsletter publishing. Mr. Pirillo's Web site, Lockergnome.com, delivers more than 400,000 ad-supported technology e-newsletters each week. A few short years ago, Mr. Pirillo would have been the first to back this much-vaunted method of Internet marketing. Today, he insists that consumers are through with signing up to receive commercial e-mail.

His money's on a system that promises to change the way content publishers interact with Internet users -- and the role that e-mail newsletters play in the business-to-consumer market.

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RSS, short for Really Simple Syndication -- also known as Rich Site Summary -- is most commonly described as a news aggregator designed to facilitate the distribution of on-line content. Developed in Extensible Markup Language (XML), this system doesn't require the use of e-mail to reach consumers. Instead, news headlines and associated links are delivered directly to the user, who can view stories in a program browser or click through to the complete articles on-line.

This system could be bad news for the many Canadian businesses that currently rely on e-newsletters to assist in customer relationship management, generate ad revenue, and, perhaps most important, deliver on-line content. National retailers, consumer packaged goods companies, private businesses and news providers are thoroughly immersed in e-mail initiatives. In fact, Internet users would be hard-pressed to find a major Canadian Web site that doesn't offer visitors a free subscription to a weekly or monthly e-mail piece.

Already some concerns about this dependence on e-mail have been raised within the on-line marketing community, as companies continue to encounter obstacles that make running a successful e-newsletter program a challenge.

E-newsletter publishers count on increasing subscriber numbers to justify the costs associated with newsletter development and deployment, as well as to attract advertisers. But consumers who receive mass quantities of unwanted e-mails, known as spam, aren't likely to consent to the delivery of additional e-mails.

At the annual Jupiter Media conference on e-mail marketing strategies held in New York in May, an attorney with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission stated that the e-mail address at which Internet users can report unsolicited commercial e-mails ( uce@ftc.gov) receives an average of 130,000 complaints each day. According to the results of a recent on-line survey released by business and marketing firm Intelliseek Inc., more than half of all polled Internet users receive upward of 50 spam messages daily. When asked to rate how they felt about this, 40 per cent of respondents answered "angry. Fifty-eight per cent said "furious."

To make matters worse, another study, released by Assurance Systems, indicated that about 15 per cent of legitimate e-mail messages are mistakenly filtered as spam. Where e-newsletter publishers could once distribute their messages with little fear of being bounced or blocked, spam filters have made delivery a thorny task.

RSS is being touted as the latest weapon in the fight against spam and the newest solution to on-line content distribution. It's a system that's easy to install and employ; RSS readers can be Web-browser-based, stand-alone desktop applications, even integrated into Microsoft Outlook (NewsGator and FeedDemon, both for Windows, and NetNewsWire for Mac OS X, are among the more popular programs).

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The credit RSS is currently receiving is belated, given that it has already been around for more than 10 years, but the prevalence of spam has spawned a renewed interest. The concept was originally developed by California-based software development and management group UserLand, though Netscape is often erroneously credited with its creation, having been an early adopter.

What's so appealing about RSS is that subscribers can customize and tailor the information they receive, virtually eliminating irrelevant content. RSS is just like surfing the Web, only the content you're interested in comes to you.

There are currently tens of thousands of free opt-in RSS publisher "feeds" available on the Web (see Syndic8.com and News Is Free for directories). The top 100 most subscribed feeds, as listed by Radio UserLand, regularly include Wired News, CNN Sports, The Wall Street Journal and Business 2.0. But feeds also exist for the smallest of Web logs (blogs), housing the thoughts of random Internet users in on-line journal form.

What does RSS mean to the content-rich e-newsletter industry? About three months ago, Ken Schafer, president of the Toronto-based Internet consultancy Schafer Group and a founder of The Association for Internet Marketing and Sales (AIMS), simultaneously launched an e-newsletter and added an RSS feed to his company's blog. Though it's difficult to determine exactly how many RSS users subscribe to a feed -- marketers cite this as one of the few limitations of the system -- he estimates that there are about 10 times as many people viewing his feed as the e-newsletter.

Mr. Schafer credits the concept behind RSS with the popularity of the program among his subscribers. "[RSS]feeds give the control back to the reader."

As Internet content publishers, both Mr. Pirillo and Mr. Schafer believe that RSS could replace the need for e-newsletters.

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"It gives us everything we wanted from e-mail newsletters, and everything spam has taken away," Mr. Schafer says. "I would be surprised if in three years there are any e-newsletters left."

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