Killer Desktop Apps, Part 4: Feed Me

Let’s talk about RSS feeds. Depending on whom you talk to, “RSS” stands for “rich site summary” or “real simple syndication.” Basically, it’s an XML format used for syndicating Web content. RSS is a way for publishers to push their content to sites other than their own and for users to aggregate all the content in which they’re interested in one place. The type of content you see syndicated in RSS feeds includes news stories and headlines, events listings, project updates, excerpts from discussion forums, and more.

I’m hearing increasingly more about RSS feeds. I have to admit, before I started researching this topic, I was a little intimidated. There’s a lot to learn and a lot of terminology to understand. (“RSS” is only the first definition you’ve got to get under your belt.) There are also a lot of players in the space. But once you get into it, you’ll be hooked. It’s a really interesting environment and exciting to see a new interactive marketing platform emerge. And that platform’s starting to show real promise.

RSS works much like email used to work. You subscribe to a desktop or Web-based application that allows you to opt in to RSS feeds from all kinds of publishers. You can get feeds from most major publishers — ClickZ’s News and Stats sections,, and The Wall Street Journal Online are among them. You can also sign up for feeds from your favorite blogs. And more Web sites are adding feeds every day.

You can choose from a number of feed-aggregating applications. They vary in terms of functionality and accessibility. There’s Pluck, Feedreader, NewsGator (which works within Outlook), and NewzCrawler, to name a few. Some are free and come with limited functionality; others must be purchased and come with increased functionality and convenience.

For the most part, all feed aggregators deliver headlines and a little additional information so you can decide if you want to click to read the full version of the content. At that point, you click to pull up the publisher’s site in a browser interface. Until recently, the feed interface was advertising- free. Consumer desire to avoid advertising is one reason for RSS’s popularity. However, some companies are looking to deliver relevant, targeted text and image ads within the feed interfaces.

One company is Pheedo. I spoke to Bill Flitter, VP of marketing. Flitter is a wealth of information on RSS news feeds and blog advertising.

Many people use feeds as an alternative to email delivery of news and information, Flitter told me. I asked what he thought made this platform viable. “If the problem of spam doesn’t get figured out, marketers will switch their dollars to RSS.” He did admit the industry is still in its infancy, adding, “Today, you can place an ad in a feed and you can track clicks. Over time, tools will get smarter as they did with email.” He reminded me email was text only in the early ’90s.

Currently, it’s a little difficult to quantify the number of RSS subscribers and how many of them actually read the content. (Just because someone subscribes to an RSS feed doesn’t mean she reads it.) In essence, it’s still difficult to quantify inventory and track actual exposures to the advertising with RSS feeds.

FeedBurner is a company looking to fix that situation, enabling feed publishers to track readership. As these and other advances are made, RSS feed advertising will become more viable and attractive to marketers.

Of course, RSS’s popularity, to a large degree, comes from the absence of advertising. Do we stand to see early adopters rebel against ads in feeds? Probably. As with pop-ups and spam, users will build software to eliminate ads from feeds. This means publishers and marketers must be smart about this from the very beginning. If it turns out to be a second chance with opt-in marketing, let’s not screw it up.

Flitter said, “The consumer has more control now than ever. Online users vote with their [mice]. If the noise-to-value ratio is out of balance, consumers are one click away from opting out.” The advertising has to be in the right proportion to content and must be highly relevant.

I encourage you to explore the world of RSS for yourself. Download a reader and consider the advertising opportunities. Chances are the big ad networks you deal with today won’t bring you these types of opportunities. Many shy away from blogs and RSS feeds, primarily because of the content’s volatility.

Yet these are great ways to reach niche audiences. Though small today, the audience may quickly become substantial. As far as rates go, you’re likely to find really aggressive, performance-based pricing. Finally, you’ll need to be able to talk about this stuff before your clients ask about it.

Besides Pheedo, other companies offering this type of advertising include RSSAds, Blogads, Lockergnome, and Kanoodle (in a deal with Feedster).

If you’ve had experience advertising within this environment or have opinions about its viability, I’d love to hear from you.

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