Friday, 7 October 2005

Feedblitz: email subscriptions for your blog (and Feedburner)

I've been a huge fan of Feedburner since I first found it through the Blogger help, and they just keep getting better and better. Having not so long ago introduced Pingshot, Feedburner continues to improve apace. Recently Feedburner teamed up with Feedblitz so that, if you have a burned Feedburner feed, you can now offer your readers free email subscriptions to your blog or site via Feedburner (see the Feedburner blog post). But you can still use Feedblitz, as a blogger or a blog reader, even if the blog in question doesn't use Feedburner, as long as it has a feed. (For those new to feeds, I will be doing an intro to feeds and Feedburner soon - seems long overdue!)

Whenever you update your blog or site, and therefore your newsfeed updates too, this gets picked up (they check for changes to your Feedburner feed once a day after midnight, eastern US time) and an email is sent to your email subscribers.

Providing email subscriptions with Feedblitz

To offer email subs via Feedburner just sign in to your Feedburner account, click Publicise and click Email Subscriptions. You'll get code to paste into your blog or site template - the sidebar is the logical place for it - to produce a signup form (just a box really) where readers can just enter their email addresses to subscribe (using a disposable email address like a Gmail alias or a Spamgourmet DEA if they prefer!). This also creates a Feedblitz account for you if you don't already have one, and you get emailed the password to enable you to login and manage your account. You also automatically get an email subscription to your own feed.
Even if you don't already use Feedburner, don't despair - Feedblitz will still work as long as you have a feed and have turned it on, just register with them and enter the URL of your blog source feed (if you're on Blogger it will be http://YourUsualBlogURL/atom.xml)

It's easy for your readers to sign up, in the resulting box in your blog they just need to enter their email address (a Feedblitz account is also created for them if they have none already). As is common with many web services, they'll get an email from Feedblitz where they have to click the verification link before anything will start working. Then once a day, no more often, they get an email on any new posts you made that day - full posts or first X characters of each post, whatever you've set for your feed in Feedburner (on the Optimize, Summary Burner page) or, if you are using your blog source feed, whatever you've set for that.

Advantages for bloggers and blog readers

When someone logs in to Feedblitz they can manage their offered subscriptions and their subscribers as well as their own email subscriptions to other people's feeds, from the same dashboard.

As a blog owner you can manage the feeds you've syndicated by email, see who your subscribers are, even delete subscribers. (There seems to be an option to block subscribers but I can't find it on the detailed subscribers page.) There's a Feedblitz page summarising Feedblitz for content publishers including bloggers, and also a Feedburner Feedblitz FAQ.

As a subscriber you can manage all your email subscriptions to different feeds in one place - obviously you can add and delete feeds, but you can even pause a feed, poll or test a feed and get a test email, even preview what an HTML email from Feedblitz based on your feed will look like. (A mystery - I tested Feedblitz and it only emailed me the last day's posts, 2 of them, and yet the preview says there are 5 new posts - including old ones made before I activated Feedblitz, and even though my main blog page has more than 5 posts! The actual email I got from Feedblitz correctly said there were 2 new entries. Maybe the test preview is just set to show 5 posts, period).

Again, Feedblitz have provided a page with information for subscribers although they use "feed readers" for the link text from their overview page - a niggle but that seems to defeat the object if they're targeting email users who aren't familiar with what feeds, never mind "feed readers", are; why didn't they use "email subscribers" as the link text… (and hey, people aren't exactly "feed readers" are they, unless that's a new synonym I haven't cottoned on to)? There is mention on that subscriber info page of the ability for subscribers to subscribe anonymously (so that the blog owner can't see who the subscriber is), but I couldn't see an option for that in my subscriber section. Maybe it's a feature that will be introduced, who knows. Or maybe it's only for paying subscribers, it's just not clear.

Which leads me mention - the standard service is free for both bloggers and subscribers, but they are offering fee paying options for both blog/site owners and for subscribers (see the bottom of Feedblitz's overview/features page). There's not an awful lot of info yet on what extras you'd get if you pay.

Issues with Feedblitz

It's clearly still a work in progress, e.g. their FAQ page is still not complete. There are usability issues - the biggest pain is there's no link to get back to your Feedblitz dashboard if you're looking at some of the other pages on their site (so it's a lot of Back buttoning); there's no "Are you sure?" to unsubscribe, I accidentally unsubscribed from my own blog in my test subscription! And if you made a mistake when logging in, thereafter it won't let you in even with the right details ("Bad Request"! And I didn't even ask them to - well, never mind...), until you delete the Feedblitz cookie (at least in Firefox). On many pages there are nice legends explaining what the icons do, but why not also have short descriptive text that pops up when you hover your mouse over the icon? Plus, there's maybe too much talk of feeds on the subscriber pages, given that it's aimed partly at people who know about email but haven't a clue about feeds.

Bloglet vs Feedblitz

You may notice if you poke around the Feedblitz site that there's even a page for subscribers to convert their existing Bloglet subs to Feedblitz. (I can't provide a link to it here as you have to be logged in to access it - go to your "Manage your subscriptions" page, there's a link towards the top). You have to give them your Bloglet user ID and password, and note that you'll then get emails from both Bloglet and Feedblitz so you have to turn one or other of them off.

Bloglet was the only way that I could find to offer my readers free email subscription service for my blog, before Feedblitz - and I do have email subscribers, about a sixth of my subscribers use Bloglet rather than a feed reader, and 16% is not an insignificant proportion. I have offered Bloglet email subscriptions on my blog for a while (a post on Bloglet will follow soon too). I did that for precisely the same reason Feedburner now offer Feedblitz, the same reason used by Feedblitz to try to plug its service: I wanted my blog to be more accessible to a wider range of readers, including those who aren't au fait with feeds but understand email, or those who just prefer email notification of updates to my blog (you have to remember to check your subscribed feeds for updates, emails just pop right into your inbox).

How do Feedblitz and Bloglet compare? They're both free. They both make use of Feedburner feeds (at least, the way I've set up Bloglet, which I'll explain in my future Bloglet post - I found that was the easiest and most reliable way). There is a handy Feedblitz vs Bloglet features comparison table but as it was prepared by Feedblitz, guess which one it comes down on the side of..

Where Feedblitz wins is in a prettier, slicker, more userfriendly interface, the ability to view all your subscriber numbers/details in one place i.e. Feedburner, whether they subscribe by email or feed reader, more flexibility for users e.g. pausing emails, plus (assuming Feedblitz activate it for the free service) potentially a blog or site owner may be able to block certain subscribers. (I have one Bloglet subscriber I suspect is a spam site from the domain name, though I may be being unfair...). Overall Feedblitz seems to be more comprehensive as well as flexible. Also the support pages seem better, at the mo, and my one email query so far was answered pretty much overnight, whereas I've never heard back from Bloglet on anything. I also suspect that the people behind Feedblitz are putting more into it as they're obviously trying actively to develop it commercially, with enhanced services for which they'll charge, and to promote their service by e.g. partnering with others like Feedburner, so there should hopefully be more features and improvements to come.

Where Bloglet wins is that you can set what subscribers get in their email to be different from what you've set in your Feedburner feed (or indeed in your blog's source feed). I've set Blogger's feed to output posts in full, but Bloglet so that subscribers only see the post titles, and can click through for the full post (and I've set Feedburner so they only see the title and first 500 characters, again with clickthrough). I wanted to spare them long emails (from my often quite long posts!), plus Blogger's preview view isn't too hot and sometimes I have to edit a post to reformat etc after I publish it, so I didn't want the original unpretty (or indeed erroneous) text to show up in full in an email. With Feedblitz you're stuck: your subscribers effectively only see a reflection of what's in your Feedburner feed; whatever you set in there will dictate the format of the emails they get. Let's hope that in future they'll offer the option to tailor this separately from Feedburner.

So I'd say, if you want to be able to set your subscribers' emails to a shorter format from your feed, use Bloglet. But otherwise, as it's more userfriendly and has more features, try Feedblitz (ideally with Feedburner). For now, I'm keeping Bloglet, but I'll be adding a Feedblitz option too shortly (in case you wonder why there isn't one on my blog yet - it does work, I've tried it, but there are other changes I need to make to my template and I haven't had time as I've been writing this! So I shall do all the template changes together soon.)

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Phil Hollows said...

Hi Improbulus:

I'm enormously flattered that you have taken such time and effort to write such a comprehensive write up. Wow. Let me just address the more salient points in the post (yes, I know the FAQ still needs to be done. So many ideas, so little time...)

1) Preview showing 5 posts but you only received 2. Yes - the preview shows at least the most recent five posts regardless of the date they're posted, so that you can see how an email looks and feels. Originally, it did not work that way, it only used what it would send out in the run (2 posts in your case). Problem was, if you previewed when there were no pertinent posts, there was nothing to see. That made a lot of people unhappy, which is why preview now works the way it does (and why there's a line near the top that warns you that the actual posts sent may vary).

Blocking (ok, dropping) a subscriber *is* the delete option in your subscriber management pane, as I explained in my email to you a few hours ago. Deletions in the management areas are protected by "Are you sure" prompts; unsubscribes aren't as users who are unsubscribing typically have little patience for such prompts. There's always a simple workaround, which is to subscribe again. No harm done. On balance I currently feel this is the best route to go.

There is a link on FeedBlitz comparing it to Bloglet that you don't have to be logged in to see here as you point out (okay, I don't list the truncation option. Oops). You are only required to be logged in to actually perform the import from Bloglet.

In terms of abbreviating posts, my stock answer is to use FeedBurner's summary burner capability. After all, if your posts are too long for email, aren't they also too long for a traditional aggregator? It makes sense to me to fix the feed for both in one fell swoop. Still, post truncation will probably come in the not too distant future, but as a feature it's behind the new premium services currently in beta.

As for the dashboard - it's available from every dynamic page, but not from the static ones. I'll go address that (but clicking "login" from any menu gets you there as well, FYI).

Finally, "Bad Request" is a response from the web server, not FeedBlitz code (not that it makes a difference to the end user, but still). Frustrating, I know, but opening a new browser window always fixes the problem as far as I know. A cookie fix for IE5 uses on Mac (not a large population of users, as you might imagine, but it needed a fix) was put in about 24 hrs ago which might have potentially fixed this issue - if you can consistently reproduce this one now please do let me know as I would be delighted to figure it out and cure it if the IE/Mac fix hasn't already.

FeedBlitz is a rapidly evolving service. There are things that it does really well right now, some that it can and will do better, and some that it should but doesn't yet. Watch this space, though! There's plenty of places to go from here and there is a plan :-)

Thanks again for the analysis,


ritzy said...

ups! I was just celebrating that I found a similar service on (among pinging, mapstats and other stuff). And now this sound so good I can't really make up my mind!