What Does RSS Mean for Advertisers?

RSS (define) isn’t anything new (Variety.com launched the first commercial news RSS feed in June 2002). But like so many things that bubble up through the Internet, it now seems to be coming into its own. Publishers like the ability to send news feeds to users who subscribe to them, users seem to enjoy having information delivered to them (instead of having to search for it), and advertisers are discovering RSS as a way of pushing ads out to ready and willing consumers.

Last week seems to have marked a bit of a watershed in RSS commercialization. AD:TECH San Francisco had two sessions on the protocol, Google started testing contextual advertising within RSS feeds, several smaller ad networks have begun experimenting with RSS ads, and even Yahoo is supposedly looking at jumping into the fray.

If you listen to the AD:TECH speakers, consider your own RSS usage, and remember two of the biggest networks on the planet want to get in the RSS advertising game, it seems pretty clear it’s time to pay attention to RSS as a viable advertising medium.

But since my job here at ClickZ is to push the envelope a bit, I’d like you to look beyond the technology and consider why RSS is becoming so popular and what that implies about what works online.

Consider RSS’s characteristics. Forget about the technology for a second: for marketers, it’s not all that important to understand the ins and outs of the RSS protocol (though if you want to know more, Wikipedia is a good place to start). No, what are really important are what RSS does and why consumers like it.

Basically, what’s so attractive about RSS (versus email or even the Web itself) is it allows consumers to control incoming information streams. Unlike with email, consumers can limit what they receive to exactly what they want. If they like a site, they subscribe. If they don’t read the subscription, they can just delete it. In most RSS readers (or browser-based aggregators, such as those in Firefox), the only thing a subscriber must deal with is a list of headlines. These are easily scanned and either read or ignored. There’s little “cognitive overhead” to checking RSS feeds; take a couple of seconds to scan the headlines and you’re up to date.

And unlike email, RSS feeds don’t demand to be read. There’s no chance you’ll miss an incoming message from a potential client because you mistake it for spam. Basically, there’s no spam in RSS at this point (and little potential for it to occur). You don’t have an address to which things are sent. You’re the one in control. You can read the entries or not.

The control aspect is probably what makes RSS so popular. If you look at the most successful consumer technologies over the past couple years: MP3 players such as the iPod; TiVo and other PVRs (define); VOD (define), all are about placing media control in users’ hands and allowing them to experience what they want, when they want. There’s been plenty written here recently about podcasting and PSPcasting. RSS fits into the consumer control trend that’s sweeping the media world (and, to be technically correct, both those “casting” methods rely on RSS).

People are bombarded by increasingly more information every day, much of it out of their control. From TV to email to innovative outdoor advertising schemes and stealth-marketing techniques, consumers are overloaded with incoming data streams. They’re starting to fight back, not just because they’re uninterested but because they simply don’t have enough time or attention to deal with it all. Heck, there’s even new evidence the so-called “info glut” makes people stupider. As if we need that to happen!

From a marketing strategy standpoint, RSS’s ascendancy is just another indication the world always seems to find a way to route around advertising whenever it has a chance. Consumers crave control over their media and are flocking to technologies that provide that control.

RSS advertising is probably an excellent idea. But we can’t forget if we abuse the channel into consumers’ browsers, they can do what they’ve always done with TV: switch the channel. When considering new ways to reach consumers, we can’t ignore the fact that while we weren’t looking, they seized control.

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