The Great RSS Reader Bandwagon

Every day seems to bring news of another publisher jumping on the branded RSS newsreader bandwagon. First we heard about The Guardian in the U.K., then the Los Angeles Times. CNET followed suit, and the Denver Post is the latest to join the fray.

What do these publishers hope to accomplish, and how can marketers get in on the game? These are the questions I sought to answer this week in wide-ranging discussions exploring these issues with experts.

At the center of the trend — because it’s partnering with both The Guardian and the L.A. Times — is a Swiss-American technology company called Consenda. It’s created an RSS reader designed to be branded by publishers and offered to their readers. (It’s not alone in doing this. Newsgator is doing the same for the Denver Post.) The idea is consumer habits are changing, and the only thing publishers can do is go with the flow.

“It’s very interesting because newspapers that we have talked to — broadcasters as well — they’re coming to understand the role that they can play. Not just for the distribution of their own content but the aggregation of all content,” said Xavier Ferguson, CEO of Consenda.

How do publishers benefit not only by acknowledging users are going to spend time with other content, but by encouraging and facilitating those outside relationships? Through advertising, of course. In Consenda’s model, the branded newsreader, called Newspoint, is also a vehicle for ad distribution.

Though all Consenda’s partnerships involve limited beta releases, I’ve been looking at a demo of the LATimes.com version. In it, banner ads (approximately 185 x 62) appear both within the lists of content feeds, and between items on the feeds themselves. The ads, according to Ferguson, are served by the publishers’ own ad serving technology and can be targeted in the same ways as ads on their Web sites.

“We’re creating more premium desktop inventory for these publishers,” said Ferguson.

Consenda also plans to offer an option for smaller publishers in which contextual ads from one of the search players — Ferguson hinted it was either Google or Overture, but wouldn’t say which — appear on the reader instead. In that model, Consenda shares its cut of the revenue with the publisher, who pays nothing for the reader.

Ferguson doesn’t seem to be worried about copyright issues that might arise from an ad model. Wouldn’t content owners — like Trademark Blog’s Martin Schwimmer — be upset about Consenda and the L.A. Times both benefiting financially from the relationships they’ve built with their RSS subscribers?

“That’s not something that concerns us or the publishers,” said Ferguson. “It’s only headlines and summaries that are being delivered into Newspoint anyway. Once someone clicks through, we’re still displaying the page in its full glory.”

Susan Mernit, who works with publishers as part of her gig at consulting group 5ive, says the folks she talks with have very different opinions than Ferguson.

“Everyone is very, very sensitive to the copyright and revenue issues of not wanting to inappropriately profit off other people’s work,” she told me. “I don’t know that anybody’s figured that out yet.”

Still, Mernit backs the idea of publishers trying branded RSS readers, but mostly so they can extend their own brands and increase time spent on their sites.

“Incorporating news readers into media sites or information sites is a really good idea because it provides a way for readers to be exposed to a new technology. They get the benefit of their destination’s feeds at the same time and then further customize the package,” she said. “I think that’s a very good thing.”

One thing publishers definitely shouldn’t do is hide their heads in the sand and hope consumers never notice the content consumption revolution going on around them.

“We’re seeing a profound shift in the way people interact with content,” Simon Waldman, director of digital media at The Guardian, told me. “I don’t know what business models are, or what the roles should be for the content providers and aggregators. All of that is pretty much up in the air in the moment. For us as the market-leading player in the U.K., we went to be in there, be in there early and understand it.”

For The Guardian, a branded RSS reader is only one of the ways it’s preparing itself. It’s also talking with players like Yahoo, MSN, and the aggregators, trying to get its feeds maximum exposure.

Waldman believes the most promising avenues for advertisers in this new environment are not within branded RSS readers, but within the content feeds themselves.

“As the audience grows, you’ll have sufficient scale in high value inventory feeds — such as personal finance and travel — for very effective targeted advertising,” he said. In time, Waldman expects consumers to grow more sophisticated. “They’ll build their own information streams,” he said. “The need will be for much more fine-grained feeds, which will also be much more suited for targeted advertising.”

What should one do now? For publishers, it’s probably time to dive in. As Waldman says: “Because if you’re not in the place that people want you to be, there’s a sense you disappear.”

Start creating those RSS feeds (if you haven’t already). Let users create custom RSS feeds for searches on your classified ads. If you’ve got a really sophisticated audience, maybe a branded RSS reader is the way to go.

As for advertisers, you haven’t yet got many choices. If you’re sick of “wait and see” mode, you might talk with one of the players deploying these readers and experiment with RSS reader ads. Better still, talk with a big media company about sponsoring some of its feeds.

There are a lot of big ideas being tossed around out there, but it’s going to be a step-by-step process. Most initial steps are going to be small. With consumers going in that direction, however, you’re bound to head that way sooner or later. Why not get a head start?

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