A Really Simple Content Solution?

Whether touted as the publisher’s spam solution or simply considered an alternate content distribution method, RSS feeds are suddenly attracting a lot of interest from publishers and marketers. In the wake of the SoBig virus came the “E-mail is dead!” hue and cry (OK, so it’s a headline), and nets were cast far and wide for a replacement. RSS, a 10-year-old system that delivers content to interested recipients’ desktops, suddenly became the subject of lots of belated attention.

Marketers, publishers, even online newsgroups, list services, and some companies are considering adding RSS to their online toolboxes. Is it time? There are pros and cons.

Simple to implement, RSS (which stands for either rich site summary or really simple syndication — take your pick) allows newsreaders and aggregators to scrape headlines, summaries, and links off Web sites for syndication. It’s long been used to syndicate news content. More recently, it’s become almost standard operating procedure for blogs. Companies are turning to RSS to issue events listings, project updates, and corporate announcements. There are RSS feeds that can track eBay listings, products on Amazon, packages sent via major courier services — you name it. If it’s online and frequently updated, it’s likely RSSable.

Newbies wishing to get up to speed quickly might take a look at EEVL’s RSS — A Primer for Publishers & Content Providers.

A continually updated feed of the latest headlines and blurbs — right on the subscriber’s desktop. No wonder publishers love, and fear, RSS. They love it because it makes spam, filtering, bounces, and list management non-issues. People who want a feed turn it on. Want to unsubscribe? Turn it off. Surfers don’t have to remember to navigate to a site to catch up on what’s new. RSS reminds people to visit, hence creating both traffic and brand. It costs less in time, money, energy, and resources than any email application.

Yet there are downsides to all the ease of use. RSS is still a little-known technology to the vast majority of Web users. Expect it to be baked into the OS or standard applications in the future (such as NewsGator, which integrates into MS Outlook). But that’s the future; this is now.

Currently, RSS is ephemeral — headlines come, then they go. They aren’t stored for later in an inbox, should a reader be offline or busy when they’re live. There’s no RSS tracking mechanism, so you don’t know how many readers you’ve got or how many ads were served via RSS. If newsletter subscribers decamp in favor of feeds, publishers will have to explain lower subscriber numbers to advertisers. How, where, and what type of ads can be displayed in a feed are limited, to say the least.

Some publishers fear tipping their hand, that is, showing readers headlines and blurbs, will disincline people from clicking through to the site for the whole story — hence fewer eyeballs. I’m not aware of any research on RSS’s impact on publishers, advertisers, or readers. It’s still too early in the game.

RSS has traditionally been a low-graphics medium, but that’s changing. Sites can add branding elements and photos to feeds (including their own logos). Expect ads to follow, although currently there’s no RSS ad model.

The closest example I’m aware of is Rafat Ali’s PaidContent.org. Rafat is using RSS less as a feed than as a delivery mechanism for his daily HTML newsletter. His feed delivers the PaidContent home page, ads and all, to RSS readers. Ad-free group blog Boing Boing does the same. The model’s a good one, graphically. But it can create heavy bandwidth demands. The feed is updated automatically for RSS subscribers, but whether they actually look at it is something only they know.

It’s possible to embed paid ads in RSS headlines. Paid RSS feeds are also possible, providing the end user employs a client that supports authentication. As these capacities develop and are refined, many publishers view RSS as an enhancement to, not a replacement for, newsletters.

RSS devotees love its capacity for customization. Feeds can be tweaked to deliver only news containing a particular keyword from a specific publication. These are called “RSSlets.” Providers such as NewsIsFree build custom feeds for portals and Web sites from a long list of content provider partners.

RSS is going mainstream. It holds myriad drawbacks for publishers and marketers, but all are surmountable. As with most everything else online, it comes down to the user. Increasingly more user-friendly RSS readers are becoming available (especially for tech-savvy and at-work surfers). Comfort levels are rising — this is pretty easy technology.

Do you need an RSS strategy? Not today, perhaps. This isn’t a question of if, but when, your target audience demands, “Feed me!”

Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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