RSS on the Rise

I admit it. I’m an RSS (define) junkie. My morning just isn’t complete without a healthy dose of my favorite content feeds. And I’m delighted when I see RSS boxes at the bottom of my favorite sites, indicating I can integrate those feeds into my RSS aggregation page or my personal Web portal. With a few clicks, I can add regular content feeds to My Yahoo so my favorite sites push content to me. It saves the effort of hunting for it. Most mainstream sites now offer RSS feeds. And like most blogs these days, ours has an RSS feed so readers can see new posts as they’re published.

I use:

  • NetVibes from any browser

  • Sage from Firefox (I’m working on hacking this to store my feeds on a server.)
  • Flickr, to track new photos from my friends
  • Gmail, to track new mail in my inbox
  • Feed Me Links, to track my friends’ newest bookmarks

RSS brings great possibilities to content publishers and advertisers, too. Any piece of microcontent can be tagged, then distributed via an RSS feed. RSS is sometimes mistaken for content instead of what it truly is: plumbing that connects users to that content.

It’s an exciting development for marketers, because it allows consumers to opt in for content feeds. And we all know marketers are getting into the Web content business big time with Webisodes, online contests, online games, and so on. Some possibilities:

  • You’re in the market for a new home in an area where there’s not much product on the market. Sign up for an RSS feed to get updated listings pushed to you.

  • You’re passionate about modern architecture. Sign up for RSS feeds to get the latest posts across a wide variety of blogs aggregated at My Yahoo or My MSN.
  • You’re a fanatic about your car. Sign up for RSS feeds from the OEM (define) site to get rich content fed to you. It’s like a mirror-image of search, because it moves the content to the user rather than moving the user to the content.
  • Everyone loves a bargain. Imagine sites that aggregate bargains across the Web and feed them to you directly.

All this is possible, some of it already exists, and what doesn’t is under development.

John Manoogian III, one of our technologists and resident RSS guru, has been hacking around in this area for awhile. Here’s what he has to say about RSS.

Mark Kingdon: RSS is appearing everywhere. What’s the usage/penetration today?

John Manoogian: RSS has had an interesting growth trajectory, and the phenomenon has evolved significantly over the last year. According to a recent study by Ipsos Insight and Yahoo, as many as 27 percent consume RSS content through My Yahoo and My MSN. If you extrapolate the number out, 27 percent of the U.S. Internet population is roughly 50 million people.

The interesting part about that number is that those people, about 27 percent of the Internet population, access RSS through their personalized start pages but don’t realize that it’s RSS. In the same study, only 4 percent of the Internet population actually knew what RSS was and consciously used it. That’s the brilliant part. One of the promises about the Internet is that people can receive the content that they want, when they want it, in a user-friendly framework. RSS fits the bill.

MK: Who are most frequent users of RSS feeds?

JM: According to the same study, RSS readers were previously male, young, educated, and affluent; the typical Internet geek or early adopter. Now that Yahoo and MSN, among others, have included RSS feed capabilities into their users’ personal portals, RSS has become a lot more popular and easily accessible. Now, RSS readership looks much more like the standard Internet population with a mix of 55 percent female and 45 percent male. You can now assume the RSS user is much the same as the average Internet user.

MK: What opportunities does it offer to marketers?

JM: As the aggregating engines continue to improve, and it becomes increasingly easy for users to create their personal newspaper, usage will skyrocket. If marketers don’t have an RSS strategy in place, then I’m sure their customers will ask for one. Of course, most traditionally content-based businesses have already caught on, but I believe that almost any online experience that provides frequent (at least weekly) updates is a candidate for an RSS feed. It will be really cool when RSS breaks out of the browser and enables content to be routed to mobile devices.

MK: There’s an entire infrastructure or ecosystem growing around this concept with sites like del.icio.us. What are the must-see destinations on the Web for marketers who want to keep an eye on RSS?

JM: I think there are two flavors of sites doing interesting things with RSS: those focused on RSS itself, like Syndic8.com, FeedBurner, Feedster; [and] informational sites, like Mark Pilgrim’s dive into mark and Les Orchard’s OXdecafbad, where coders discuss new ways to sort, sift, and remix RSS feeds. These are the sites for the RSS “heads” — people who want the newest information about getting the newest information.

Then there are those sites quietly using RSS to connect users to their data in new ways, such as Gmail, Flickr, Upcoming.org, [and] del.icio.us. I think in the future any site providing perishable information that needs to be distributed in a timely fashion should be looking into RSS: event calendars, new product launches, movie listings, sales promotions, product reviews, and game and DVD releases.

Conclusion

RSS is the invisible plumbing that will enable content to flow easily and widely. What’s the takeaway for marketers? Consumers on the Web have an endless appetite for content. Navigating around for it is no easy task. That’s why Google just hit an all time high north of $400 a share. And increasingly more rich content is being created by marketers. To be compelling, this content will have to be fresh. That means it will be perishable. If marketers are going to maximize the value of the content, they have to make it searchable and they have to make it flow. That’s what RSS can do.

Develop an RSS strategy, and set your content free.

Meet Mark at Search Engine Strategies in Chicago, December 5-8, 2005.

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