Many online media companies find RSS (define) useful for driving traffic, extending their brands, and creating new ad vehicles. As RSS continues to gain traction, marketers are testing new ways to use it to promote e-commerce. It can be used to drive sales and build relationships when your content is adapted to meet users' needs.
Some e-commerce leaders have been investing in RSS-based marketing for a while now. So far, there are four primary ways e-commerce companies use RSS:
Alternative content distribution. As with online media companies, e-tailers use RSS feeds to drive traffic:
Time and price sensitive promotions. This approach works for retailers to convey changing prices and limited availability inventory. It's most notably used by travel companies, such as Orbitz and Travelocity. Alternatively, marketers such as Netflix distribute most-popular- and new-release-related information via RSS.
Ongoing, relationship-building content. Like email, RSS feeds can be used to engage customers, build brand, and extend relationships. With this approach, marketing content acts like a blog and complements email by repurposing marketing content to draw consumers into your site. For example, Woot uses a blog and RSS to attract customers by offering one new product daily.
Feed advertising. Advertising on RSS feeds provides contextually relevant information. "Buying RSS advertising is an alternative media that drives targeted niche consumers to our e-commerce site," notes Martin Andersen, PriceRunner U.S. general manager. Providers such as Pheedo recommend testing the ad's length and context to determine what works optimally for both content provider and advertiser. A reader who finds the advertising obtrusive may elect to stop receiving the feed.
Relationship extension/lead generation. This method uses private feeds to extend customer relationships by distributing tailored information, such as sales leads, that can be confirmed and tracked. These messages often require additional security. Rentals.com is an example of time-sensitive information about live prospects being sent to property managers.
Brand-building vehicle. Orbitz and CheapTickets CMO Randy Wagner views RSS as a means to change perceptions about the Orbitz brand. Through the variety of feeds offered, RSS helps get the message to prospects and existing customers about the full breadth of Orbitz's offering.
How to Implement RSS
From an implementation perspective, e-tailers use methods similar to those of media companies to drive RSS users by using content (either promotional or informational) to engage new users. In addition to driving new traffic, RSS can help search engine rankings (particularly blog-related ones), as blogs and feeds are indexed. Here are some tips:
Repurpose existing marketing content. Create a "Deal of the Week," for example. Since RSS users are often targeted in their needs, develop specialized feeds to address small niches that may be too expensive to reach otherwise. Be careful the feed content doesn't look like repurposed ads.
Create targeted copy to drive continued reading. Since RSS readers glean information highlights, you need strong, succinct copy that engages consumers to click through. Consider doing this with a blog.
Incorporate branding into your feeds. This helps promote your company.
Make linked articles or landing pages an entry to your store. Include good navigation to the rest of your offering, a list of top sellers, and a user-friendly purchase process.
Promote feed availability on your site and in other marketing materials. This will grow channel use. As with email promotions, place buttons on relevant pages, include a link in the footer, and use in-house ads throughout your site and marketing collateral. Remember, you may need to educate consumers as to the benefits of your service and provide FAQs.
RSS Issues to Consider
RSS use still has challenges to overcome. Among them are:
It requires new technology and reallocation of marketing spend. First, test RSS use on smaller areas of your marketing, such as specialized niche segments or price promotions. Being one of the first companies in your segment to use RSS can give your firm a PR boost if done well.
It may cannibalize some email marketing initiatives. Savvy consumers who want to reduce inbox clutter will find other ways to get their information. You must be able to provide information where and how they want to receive it or risk loosing them.
Consumers control personal information. Like brick-and-mortar retailers, marketers using RSS don't necessarily have email or postal addresses to reconnect with consumers if they choose to stop the feed. With increasingly more consumers tagging legitimate email as spam, this is similar to some challenges email marketers face. It can be mitigated if the consumer purchases product and you ship it to a postal address. To overcome this, one option is to create a promotion, such as a sweepstakes, to entice readers to share contact information with you.
Analyzing RSS Results
RSS analytics are still relatively young. Part of your RSS analytics' strength will depend on your existing online analytics capabilities and technology platforms used. Wagner, who uses a marketing metrics dashboard at Orbitz, sees RSS as a viable marketing tool within the marketing mix. She noted, "You get the behavior that you measure." Here are a few basic measures:
Monitor subscribers and readers. Specifically, track new subscribers, total subscribers, growth rate, average daily readership, views, clicks, and click-throughs for basic trends to track each feed. Check to determine what types of products, offers, and copy work best for your company. To this end, consider testing different offers and copy.
Analyze results from your ad campaign. Pheedo and FeedBurner both provide advertisers and publishers with results similar to other types of online campaigns.
Add branding-related metrics. These measures should be an extension of your existing analysis.
Measure costs to determine channel effectiveness. Since you may be repurposing existing content and using internal resources, this number may be difficult to assess. At the very least, understand the incremental cost of this new initiative so you can track its payback.
As RSS adoption grows, marketers must test this new channel for driving sales and retaining customers. As more browsers begin to include a new generation of RSS, notably Internet Explorer 7, mass-market use of RSS will increase. As a marketer, you want to be ahead of the curve by learning how to best deploy this useful customer communications tool now.
Heidi Cohen is the President of Riverside Marketing Strategies, an interactive marketing consultancy. She has over 20 years' experience helping clients increase profitability by developing innovative marketing programs to acquire and retain customers based on solid analytics. Clients include New York Times Digital, AccuWeather.com, CheapTickets, and the UJA. Additionally, Riverside Marketing Strategies has worked with numerous other online content/media companies and e-tailers.
Prior to starting Riverside Marketing Strategies, Heidi held a number of senior-level marketing positions at The Economist, the Bookspan/Doubleday Direct division of Bertelsmann, and Citibank.