Digital MarketingStrategiesRSS Sparks Feeding Frenzy

RSS Sparks Feeding Frenzy

RSS -- it's not just for bloggers anymore. Can advertisers and publishers find happiness as content disengages from the container?

Are you an advertiser, marketer, or publisher? Then it’s time to get serious about this whole RSS (define) thing. Don’t say we didn’t warn you — we’ve been telling you this was coming for the past couple years.

All signs point to the fact RSS is on the brink of mainstream adoption. Google, MSN, and Yahoo are developing strategies to encourage subscribers to feed at their feeds and to monetize those feeds with ads. Major agencies, such as Carat Interactive, have launched practices around blogs and feeds. Venture capitalist funds are flowing to firms such as NewsGator and FeedBurner. Acquisitions and rollups have begun in earnest: AskJeeves bought Bloglines; NewsGator snapped up FeedDemon this week.

Feeds drove just under 6 million page views to NYTimes.com in March. That’s up 342 percent year over year, and a 39 percent jump over February’s numbers. No wonder Martin Nisenholtz, SVP of digital operations at the New York Times Company told an audience at the Syndicate conference in New York earlier this week RSS will be an integral component of NYTimes.com’s new monetization strategy.

“It’s the fastest growing distribution channel that we have,” said Nisenholtz unequivocally. “We’ve deliberately and very methodically gotten RSS out there.”

The Gray Lady is hardly alone at the feeding trough. “Whether advertising will come to feeds is the wrong question,” said Tim Ruder, VP of marketing at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. “The question is, how will it come?”

And as advertising comes, how will publishers and advertisers adopt to what’s currently a plain-as-mud channel?

Syndication is already starting to wreak havoc in online travel and classified ads. Aggregators such as Oodle and Indeed.com scrape ads off publishers’ sites and serve them up via RSS. Though not rendering site visits unnecessary, such services have the potential to severely chomp into page views. Growled Peter Horan, (still) CEO of About.com, “There’s going to be some bloody wars over who gets the customer and who gets to monetize the customer.”

RSS (and search) also affects publishers’ brands. Feeds may be a great source of inbound traffic, but that traffic lands directly on the content, rarely passing through the front door, or home page, of a site. That’s why About.com introduced a bouncing toolbar and logo that follow readers as they scroll down the page, said Horan. “We found we were getting 2,000 incremental subscriptions per day off of that bar, most of them from RSS feeds.” About.com aggressively markets subscriptions to its own feeds. Horan calls them “the gift that keeps on giving.”

“I’ll do a lot for that long-term relationship,” he vowed.

Other publishers, of course, are busy launching branded RSS readers. Still, say both Horan and Nisenholtz, most of their feed traffic comes from My Yahoo, not standalone readers. Yahoo made adding a feed a one-click no-brainer. Even so, About.com posted an RSS how-to for readers “because this is a high-equity activity.”

RSS Giveth and RSS Taketh

RSS giveth traffic, but it doubtless also taketh away. Publisher experiments with feeds come in several open-the-kimono flavors: headline only; headline and blurb; and entire article. In some rare cases, paid feeds are available. No matter the flavor, delivery is guaranteed. What’s less certain is if the subscriber will read, much less click.

This will affect site-side advertising in all shapes and sizes, everything from display ads to contextual plays such as AdSense. No wonder Google this week introduced a beta version of AdSense for publisher feeds.

Yet the major publishers aren’t embracing AdSense as the most elegant possible advertising solution. “We’re going to start serving little ads in our RSS feeds,” said Lincoln Millstein, SVP and director of digital media at Hearst Newspapers. “I don’t think we need AdSense to do that.” An hour prior to Google’s announcement, Nisenholtz took a swipe at contextual and search advertising.

“If you do a search on ‘quilting,’ all the tools you need to do quilting are sitting right on the side,” he said. “I think it’s a much harder thing to do when you’re writing about the word ‘Iraq.’ The intent of the reader isn’t to travel to Baghdad. The system has trouble trapping intent when the intent doesn’t lead to a commercial end. I’m not sure there’s an algorithm out there that really does that.”

Enough to Feed Ravenous Advertisers

What does the advertising world want from feeds? (Pamela Parker explored this topic last week.) “Should a client place an ad on the feed, or should they create their own RSS?” mused Carat VP and group media director John Cate. “There are demographics out there we’re not even aware of. They’re being built by the way people are setting up their RSS.”

Yet Cate also expressed a desire close to the heart of any brand marketer — one RSS isn’t yet prepared to fulfill. “How do we get from pure text-based environments to the kind of 360-degree branded environment that may be the vision of the future?”

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