The big irony of RSS is that while many people view RSS content daily, a significant percentage don’t realize that they’re using RSS technology to manage their information gathering. A study released in 2005 by search engine portal Yahoo! and research firm Ipsos Insight reported that although 27 percent of respondents used personalized Web pages (such as My Yahoo!, My MSN, etc.), only 4 percent realized that RSS feeds drove the content on these pages.
In case you’re part of the populace who isn’t quite sure what RSS is, the acronym stands for Really Simple Syndication and is a technology that allows a company to share information from its Web site with subscribers through a reader that “feeds” the content. Readers can be downloadable software that sits on your desktop or that integrates feeds into your Outlook inbox like an e-mail message; others are Web-based readers as well as personal Web pages through portals. The reader pulls new content from senders’ Web sites as it’s updated.
The reason why RSS is becoming a hot topic for marketers is two-fold: 1) RSS use is growing, and 2) it offers 100 percent deliverability.
A 2005 Jupiter Research report on RSS found that 39 percent of online consumers said they had customized Web sites to receive information specific to them in 2004; comparatively, 31 percent of online consumers opted into e-mail promotions in 2004 after
seeing advertisements. In addition, 7 percent of respondents had downloaded podcasts, which are audio and video files that typically get distributed via RSS feeds.
But the most compelling motivation for checking out RSS is competition: Jupiter’s survey found that 5 percent of marketers already were publishing marketing content as RSS feeds, with another 19 percent planning to implement a marketing feed by April 2006.
How to RSS
According to Jeanne Jennings, a Washington, D.C.-based online marketing consultant and publisher of e-mail marketing e-letter The Jennings Report, explains that marketers can either place ads in existing publishers' feeds or create their own. From a brand perspective, the latter option provides you with more visibility and control over the integration of your ad message with the content, but requires you to commit to developing a communication strategy that will appeal to prospective subscribers.
And while there are ad placement opportunities available, they are limited, according to Elaine O’Gorman, vice president of strategy for Silverpop, an e-mail marketing solutions firm in Atlanta, Ga. O’Gorman discussed RSS technology with attendees at the NCDM Winter 2005 conference. In addition, she explained, recipients aren’t used to seeing ads in RSS feeds, and might be turned off by excessive inclusion of third-party promos.
When it comes to content, Jennings says, “RSS is something that’s not interruptive,” so the feed has to offer something that end users value. For example, she explains, a baby products company could offer moms a weekly coupon feed. But subscription rates tend to be higher for more information-driven feeds—in this case, articles on raising a healthy, happy baby. The feed could integrate product specials with the tips and advice.
Rok Hrastnik, author of “Unleash the Marketing & Publishing Power of RSS,” concurs: “Direct marketers must make a smooth transition from the ‘push’ e-mail mind-set to the ‘pull’ mind-set. [They] must discover ways of effectively repackaging their existing direct marketing content … for RSS delivery. In many cases, this will mean simply creating RSS versions of the same content, while in other cases it might mean having to find new approaches to present this content in the RSS format where consumers demand more relevant value.”
Because you’ve created an RSS feed that contains useful content doesn’t mean people will flock to it. You have to promote it to drive subscriptions. In “RSSDirect,” a report published by Silverpop in 2005, the e-mail firm advises marketers to educate consumers about their RSS feed. In particular, it’s wise to set up a special page on your Web site that explains what RSS is, walks visitors through how to sign up and offers links to various readers and aggregators. For example, W. Atlee Burpee & Co. notes on its Web site which reader it prefers to help guide visitors; CNET.com even points visitors in the direction of its editors' favorite feeds.
The Upside and Downside of RSS
“The biggest thing RSS has in its favor is no spam filters on feeds,” says Jennings. In addition, O’Gorman told NCDM attendees, it’s virtually spam- and phish-proof, and can help boost your SEO rankings when optimized for keywords in your content.
But there are drawbacks. “With RSS feeds,” says Jennings, “when someone unsubscribes … that’s the end of it. You cannot recontact RSS subscribers because there’s no [e-mail] address involved.”
Perfect deliverability might sound great, but this advantage is offset by the limited ability to track and measure performance results. “While all of these activities are possible with RSS, only a few RSS marketing tools offer them, and most won’t integrate with existing e-mail solutions,” Hrastnick explains.
According to O’Gorman, individualized RSS is the latest generation of technology that helps marketers attain a more measurable environment. Via an individualized URL in each subscriber’s feed, you can track and measure subscriber actions to the recipient-level; this allows for behavioral targeting and testing. And that means marketers can take the next step by creating RSS feeds tailored to each subscriber for better traction and response.
Marketers still have much to look forward to on the RSS front. Hrastnik says: “When Microsoft comes out with Windows Vista and the new platform starts getting enough penetration, RSS will become a household tool—although most users still won’t know it’s actually called RSS.”