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Inbox or FeedReader: The Results of a Reading Experiment

I’ve been reading blogs in a feedreader pretty much since I started blogging.

But a post from the laid back productivity blogger Nick Cernis got me thinking twice about this habit. In Ditch the Digital Itch: Drop Feed Readers Today he argues that:

What started as an idea to push new content to interested readers has now become a giant time suck: a pull on our energy and resources. Feed readers are attention-seekers, time-hoggers, virtually benefit-free, hard to promote or evangelise, and almost impossible to scale and keep up with as our subscriptions and interests grow.

His suggestion is to switch from reading in a feed reader to getting new posts from your favourite blogs delivered straight to your inbox.

My initial reaction to this was resistance.  I was used to reading in a feed.  I found it a quick and efficient way to read a lot of blogs - or at least to skim and scan them so I could keep on top of what was going on.  Plus why would I want to clutter up my inbox with a whole lot of additional material?

Yet I could see from the (very mixed) reaction to his post that a lot of people had shifted to reading via their inboxes.  And conversations on Twitter confirmed that this was becoming an increasingly popular way to subscribe to a blog.

So in the interests of experimentation I decided to give it a go.  I signed up to read by e-mail wherever I could and they’ve been flying into my inbox ever since.  (I guess I didn’t make the experiment absolute though, because I didn’t stop reading in a feed reader.  I was double tracking, partly because there were some blogs I wanted to follow that I couldn’t get by e-mail.  More on that below.)

This is what I learned:

  • It was surprisingly hard to find a sign up box on some sites.  On some blogs I couldn’t find an e-mail option at all.
  • Most posts arrive a day after they’ve been published on the site.  That means if you go over to comment you can feel a little bit behind - especially if a new post has already gone up to push it off the front page.  This shouldn’t really matter, but I found that it did, for me, especially for the blogs where I’m most likely to comment
  • I like skimming, quickly.  I can then decide if a post is worth reading more slowly, or going to visit the site to comment.  Rapid skimming was easier to do in a feed reader than from my inbox
  • If I went for any length of time off line my inbox would grow to terrifying proportions.  I guess I could use filters so posts went somewhere out of the immediate inbox, but I still find it easier to skim, delete, and prioritise from the feedreader
  • If I had to select a few posts from my bulging inbox I’d go by the most intriguing headline, and delete the rest.
  • Reading from the inbox makes a post seem physically closer to you.  This has some benefits: it can seem more like a personal, almost intimate message.  This worked particularly well for short, simple and easy to read posts.
  • The sense of proximity made me feel physically overwhelmed by posts that were long, with inadequate signposts, or chunky paragraphs.  I felt like I wanted to push the text further away so I could get a better overview of what I was reading.

At the end of the experiment I concluded that my desire to skim read a lot of blogs meant I should stick with my feed reading habit.  I’m now in the process of unsubscribing from my e-mail sign up to all those blogs. (If you get a notification that I’ve left you I’m still reading, just not by e-mail.) I’m going to stick with one by e-mail - the Morning Coffee version of Levite Chronicles, because for some reason it does seem to add something to my reading experience.

These are personal and subjective reactions.  I suspect we all chose to read in different ways, and there’s  no ‘right’ way to do it.  But there are some implications for you as writers and publishers that are worth thinking about.

Lessons for Bloggers:

1. If you haven’t got an easy and obvious e-mail sign up, get one now.  Otherwise you could be losing readers.

2. Write headlines that will make sense and jump out when your reader is scanning their inbox

3. Break up your posts: use signposts, headers and really short paragraphs.  Much, much shorter than you would use offline.

4. Keep your posts short and to the point.

5. Experiment with your own reading habits.  You might find that an alternative suits you better.

Have you experimented with the way you read blogs recently?  What have you learned about your reading preferences as a result?  Can you see any implicaitons for the way you write and manage your own blog?

PS If you haven’t yet discovered the pleasure and delight of reading via a feedreader here’s a link to a plain English video that explains how they work

Photo Credit: mac stillness by shapeshift on flickr

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  1. Rachael says:

    Hi Joanna. I use a reader and find it’s so easy to group similar blogs and to star posts that I want to come back to. I’m not sure how I’d do this using my inbox.

    Like you I also find a bulging inbox somewhat terrifying and can imagine skimming posts just to get rid of them.

    Having said that, I do need to find a way to stop myself going straight to the reader every time I see there’s a new post. It’s such a time suck!

    Rachaels last blog post..Fact checking – has technology made us sloppy?

  2. amypalko says:

    I was really interested to hear how this experiment went, Joanna. As a reader, I have to say that I’m rather attached to my feedreader and I have yet to achieve inbox nirvana, so I’m probably best keeping my feeds & emails separate for now. As a blogger, however, I don’t think I’ve set up an option to subscribe via e-mail, so perhaps that’s something I need to look at.
    Thank you so much for giving us the gen!

    amypalkos last blog post..Armistice

  3. Ricardo Bueno says:

    I subscribe to receive certain newsletters via email however not many blogs. I don’t know, I guess I’ve always like visiting the site directly and it makes it easier to leave a comment (or so I think).

    If I subscribed to every blog I read via email my inbox would be quite literally flooded with emails and that would be A LOT to go through! So, I stick to the rss feed.

  4. jon says:

    What’s fun is that mine email version was (and still is) an experiment. There are only a few people using it, but one of them is a family member without fast enough internet for reading the regular ways. I’m glad that you are finding it helpful.

    jons last blog post..8 ways people talking about intentional social media strategy may (still) be right

  5. Bo says:

    Thanks for the results. I rather like my feedreader, too. Partly because a couple of times a day, I can block off a little time, and go through a ton of blogs. It’s easy to skim, and then delve if the material requires it. But I feel connected. I would hate to get the posts a day later - I enjoy the comments and replying to ones that strike a chord. That, to me, would be the biggest loss.

    And, now for a question that will show how non-computer savvy I am. I see you put up a tutorial for RSS feed, but I actually don’t know how to set up an e-mail sign-up. Are there easy instructions to do this?

    Bos last blog post..What’s a Wupatki?

  6. Robert Hruzek says:

    Intriguing experiment, Joanna, but I’m with you on the inbox thing. I hate seeing it full of stuff I have to then organize and read - sometime. MUCH easier to use a feed reader.

    But you have a point about the “subscribe by email” thingie. I’ll have to see about making mine a bit easier to see.

    Robert Hruzeks last blog post..Roamin’ Holiday

  7. Brad Shorr says:

    Feed readers for me! However, Joanna, I agree with you 100% that an easy to find email subscription box is essential. Some potential subscribers - many, possibly - are not familiar with RSS and feed readers at all. For me, though, the time lag of email delivered posts is a deal breaker.

    Brad Shorrs last blog post..Do You Want to Win $500?

  8. Ulla Hennig
    Twitter: ullahe

    Feed readers for me, too, with one or two exceptions. But I noticed some other thing: I hate to scan the post. So in google reader I only read the title, and then I either delete the post or go to the website directly and read the blog post there.

    Ulla Hennigs last blog post..What you See is not Always what you Get

  9. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Hi Rachael, good to meet you. I read that way too and I found I couldn’t create the same efffect from my inbox. The post that started me off on this experiment referred to the ‘digital itch’ and to be honest I don’t think there’s a technological solution for that - we just need to find our own ways to stop scratching!

    Hi Amy, nice to see you! Yes, if you don’t have e-mail option you should definitely have one. One drawback is that people don’t get pictures in e-mail (at least not the way I’ve seen them) but you’d still be giving them the option to come along to your site and see the wondrous photos for themselves.

    Ricardo, I think it might be a volume thing too. I just can’t be doing with them all in my inbox. I didn’t really find it made me less likely to comment - in some ways I was more minded to because the message seemed more personal and direct. (In fact I remember commenting on a piece of yours that I might not have replied to from a feed - it was interesting, direct, and I responded there and then. That being said, I don’t necessarily want to be doing that whenever I open up my inbox!)

  10. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Jon, I can’t quite put my finger on why, but yes I do. Your layout is a bit different from the standard feedburner or feedblitz fare which may be part of it, but I think it’s more the way you write. Short, personal and direct. Sorry that’s a bit of a reduction of the work you do, but I hope you know what I mean!

    Bo, you sound as if you read in a very similar way to me. You can set up the e-mail through feedburner. I’ve e-mailed you a link to the bit of their site that talks you through it. Hope it makes sense.

    Robert, I guess we’re all reading a lot of blogs - probably more than the ‘average’ reader, if there is such a thing, which is maybe why we prefer reading in a feedreader. Worth taking a look at how easy yours is to find, though I know I did find it.

  11. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Brad, interesting that it’s the time lag that is the deal breaker for you. It would be for me too for those blogs that I want to comment - but not so much for those where I just want to see what they’re up to and never or rarely comment. But I figured if I’m going to have a feedreader I’d be as well leaving everything there rather than mixing and matching.

    Ulla, that’s fascinating. You’re the exact opposite of me - I scan everything. Your point is a fantastic reminder of the importance of headlines and writing enough to hook your reader, or giving them a clue as to what you’re writing about.

  12. Jim Murdoch says:

    No, I like to keep e-mails and blog feeds separate. I don’t find my feedreader is that quick at updating and so I’m often lagging behind like this. But I do like an empty Inbox.

    Jim Murdochs last blog post..All writers are Martians

  13. Lillie Ammann says:

    I prefer a feedreader because I read blogs at one time during the day and don’t want to be distracted with e-mails when it’s not time to read blogs.

    On the other hand, I do like to subscribe to comments by e-mail so I can stay up conversations I’m following.

    Lillie Ammanns last blog post..Guest Post at Straight from Hel: How Things Change

  14. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Jim, sounds like your reading preferences are similar to mine. And the need for an empty inbox :-)

    Lillie, that’s a good point - the emails can interupt the blogs as much as the blogs the e-mails. Interesting about being happy with the comments coming that way - I guess it’s because it’s a different sort of reading. We’ve already done the thinking, reflection, understanding of what the post is about, after that it’s a keeping in touch with anything additional.

    Thanks for your perspectives, Joanna

  15. Nick Cernis says:

    Thanks ever so much for trying it for yourself and posting this follow-up, Joanna.

    You’re absolutely right — my post really did produce some very mixed opinions. I think it taught me that email works very well for those with a low number of subscriptions, but is perhaps not so suited to the blog junkies among us who track 20 or more sites.

    I plan to post a follow-up about the post too, which will talk about how I’m using aggregator sites like Alltop to compliment subscription by email. I still believe there’s a lot to be gained by effectively outsourcing the management of your day-to-day reading list, but recognise that everyone’s different, of course!

    Nick Cerniss last blog post..Deliver Us From Workplace Woodchip

  16. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Nick, what I liked most about your piece was that it got us thinking and talking, and challenged conventional ways of doing things. I found a surprisingly large number of people (mainly on twitter) who had switched to e-mail subscription, but I think as you say they were doing that in low numbers.

    Actually for me 20 or so would be a low number, which must make me a serious blog junkie…

    A follow up post would be worthwhile. Given the amount of complaints I see about blog reading fatigue ideas and suggestions would be welcome (though I still can’t help thinking the easiest way to manage is to cull the things you’re reading, wherever they arrive during the course of your day)

    Best wishes, and thank you for being probably the only person I know who writes ‘thanks ever so much’ in a comment box.

  17. Debbie Yost says:

    Last night when I read this I thought there was no way I wanted to put all my subcriptions in my e-mail! Like you, I like to skim some and it is easier to manage from the reader. I don’t even like clicking the “follow this” button at the bottom of comment sections because I don’t like getting all the e-mails from people that comment on a post someone else wrote. I prefer to just go back and check the few posts that I’m interested in enough for follow-up. It’s kind of a let down to me when I get an e-mail thinking it’s for me and it’s really not. Wow, doesn’t THAT sound a little self-centered?

    However, this morning I was thinking about it and can see the advantage of choosing one or two blogs you don’t want to miss staying current on. Then I realized I don’t get over here to read as often as I like. You, unfortunately, are further down on my reader than I’d like and by the time I’ve read all those mom blogs, I’m not in the reading mood much less commenting mood! But, I think I’ve been missing out a lot on your coaching and with my new venture for Root & Sprout and I hope to soon be one of the paid writers on the staff, I need to make sure my writing stays up to date. I use a lot of your suggestions from the past when I read religiously, like numbering and bulleting items. Everytime I do, I think of you.

    So, I’m dropping you from my reader. Never fear, you are going to my e-mail and now I will keep abreast of all your wisdom. I still may not drop by and comment very often, but at least I’ll be well informed!

    BTW, Peanut’s bus driver is not from the U.K. He is always asking me some obscure question and then waits for me to know what he is talking about. I normally don’t. I think he’s got a little too much time on his hands. And yes, it was Guy he told me to look up.

    Debbie Yosts last blog post..Magic Marker Monday Blue Beard

  18. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Debbie, your comment about the disappointment at the e-mail not being for you really made me laugh. Actually I’m the opposite side of the coin - I’m often relieved they’re e-mails I can delete quickly without having to give them too much thought. Now what does that say about me?

    I’m glad that you’re still going to be following along here. I know you’re busy and I truly understand if you can’t, but I treasure your comments and who knows, we might squeeze another guest post out of you at some point too :-)