September 2006 - Are You Ready for RSS?

Marketers needn’t know or care how RSS technology actually works. But they ought to know what they can do with it.

By Jack Gordon

By virtue of its association with blogging and podcasts, RSS, which stands for “really simple syndication,” is one of the hottest buzzwords in technology today. But to talk about the implications for marketers, we need to hack through some underbrush.

RSS is best known as the most common protocol enabling Internet users to subscribe to blogs and podcasts in a “push” format. That is, instead of visiting your favorite bloggers’ websites repeatedly, you can almost always subscribe to RSS feeds that automatically deliver updates of each blog to your computer or mobile device. People who subscribe to blogs or podcasts in this way are probably, but not necessarily, aware that something called RSS is making it happen.

In fact, however, blogs and podcasts are the tip of the iceberg. Most people being served by RSS aren’t aware of it. A 2005 study by Yahoo! found that 4 percent of U.S. Internet users were knowingly using RSS, while another 27 percent used it unknowingly.

This is because RSS is also the background technology that allows Internet users to personalize their web browsers via services like “My AOL” or “My Yahoo,” so that their home pages are continuously refreshed with information that particularly interests them. Most users of “My USA Today” probably don’t know or care that RSS is enabling the service, nor do people who ask to receive updates of particular kinds of news from CNN-only business news or only international news, for instance. It is RSS that allows video renters to have their NetFlix queues appear on their own home pages so that they don’t have to visit the NetFlix site for reminders of what’s next in line. Travelers can choose to receive information about cheap airfares from Travelocity or Expedia in the form of RSS feeds instead of via e-mail.

Here’s the juicy part: Any marketer with a website can offer visitors the option of receiving all kinds of information in the form of RSS feeds. Opt-in customers can “subscribe” to receive not only the marketer’s blog or podcasts but product updates, special offers, newsletters, job listings-whatever.

RSS is simply an enabling protocol, and the term is almost a distraction. What do marketers need to understand about RSS technology itself? Practically nothing except that it is cheap and easy to convert information for delivery via RSS feeds, answers Janet Johnson, vice president of communications for Marqui Inc., a Portland, Ore., firm specializing in web marketing. “RSS is a term like TCP/IP, which you heard a lot when the Internet was a novelty,” she says. “Knowing how RSS works is no more important than knowing exactly how the telephone wires are routed into your building.”

“People have a hard time understanding that RSS is not a medium, but rather a subscription technology,” concurs Tim O’Leary, CEO of marketing agency Respond2 Communications, also of Portland, Ore. “RSS is the mailman, it isn’t direct mail. It’s the cable company, not the movie studio.”

“Marketers typically aren’t going to take responsibility for transforming XML into RSS,” says Todd Berkowitz, director of product marketing for NewsGator Technologies of Denver, supplier of a popular RSS reader. “They should just keep in mind that RSS is essentially the plumbing, the way SMTP is for e-mail.”

The important thing to understand about RSS, experts agree, is simply that it allows information-text, audio, video, PDF files-to be “pushed” to willing and interested consumers rather than just “pulled” by visitors to a marketer’s website. But while simple, that is hugely significant. “It’s comparable to when Sears first started sending out catalogs to the American people back in the 19th century,” O’Leary says. “Purchasing power came to them.”

An obvious way for marketers to take advantage of RSS is to launch their own blogs or podcasts. (For more on podcasts, see “New Age Broadcasting” in Electronic Retailer’s January 2006 issue.)

Blake Snow is managing partner of Griffio, LLC, an Internet and blog consulting company in Provo, Utah. “My blog ( has generated way more business and revenue over the past year than my company website (,” he says. He suggests that the vast majority of marketers, including direct response companies, “could benefit either directly or indirectly” by starting a blog.

“You’ll also want to promote your new blog, podcast or vidcast on similar sites with similar audiences,” Snow says. For instance, “if I sold widgets, and I started a new blog discussing the impact of widgets on our culture, I would look for other websites that cover the same or similar topics and make a thoughtful post on their blogs, linking back to my own widget blog.”

“Thoughtful” is a vital qualifier for successful blogging and for RSS applications in general. Subscribers must opt-in to receive an RSS feed, and they can opt back out in an instant if they come to see the feed as a waste of their time. “Think about supplying consumers with information first and selling second,” recommends O’Leary. “You need to build a relationship and deliver value. Then sales will follow.”

Snow warns that no marketer should start a blog unless he or she has genuinely interesting things to say and will commit 30 to 60 minutes a day to maintaining the blog. And some experts argue that blogging, though the most familiar RSS application, is a relatively minor example of the technology’s marketing potential.

“A big mistake I see is that companies think about RSS only in terms of blogging,” says Bill Nussey, CEO of Silverpop, an Atlanta company that sells an RSS-conversion system called RSSDirect. “A lot of corporate bloggers have nothing to say and shouldn’t bother. The irony is, their companies often have great newsletters. Why create a blog that nobody reads instead of taking advantage of a new channel for your newsletter?”

What Nussey means is: Instead of just sending your newsletter via e-mail, why not also offer it via an RSS feed? “A small but growing army of people do not subscribe to e-mail newsletters (or to other types of e-mail bulletins),” Nussey says. They’re afraid that doing so will subject them to more spam and leave them vulnerable to “phishing” scams. Subscribers to RSS feeds do not have to give their e-mail addresses to anyone-and Internet users find that anonymity increasingly attractive.

In the newsletter example, RSS serves as an alternative or an addition to e-mail marketing. But what applies to newsletters applies equally to all kinds of information and updates that customers might want without having to return again and again to the marketer’s website.

Bill Flitter, founder of Pheedo, a Portland, Ore., marketing agency specializing in RSS-feed advertising, offers examples. Retailers can use RSS feeds, he says, “to change prices, offer discounts, update product information and circulate newsletters that customers receive in real-time and can read on their own time. Prices and offers can be changed hourly, depending on demand for a product. And this can be done not only in the retailer’s feed but in advertisements in other publishers’ feeds.”

Marqui Inc.’s Johnson suggests that the best fodder for RSS feeds may already be available on a marketer’s website. Don’t think about RSS-enabling your whole site, she says, but do think about certain sections of it that change often and that are of special interest to your best customers. She points to as a good example. The Purina pet food company’s site has question-and-answer sections pertaining to the health of dogs, cats and other animals. Purina has RSS-enabled those sections, allowing pet owners to subscribe to the Q&As without having to visit the site-a nice relationship-builder.

Flitter puts it this way: “The old metric that marketers used to apply was, ‘How frequently do we update our website?’ That was great, but now RSS provides an unobtrusive way to notify customers that there’s something new and of value to them. It might not be feasible or desirable to send a daily e-mail to customers, but an RSS feed with current information is not only smart, it will become standard operating procedure before long.”

When deciding which elements of your website to RSS-enable, think narrow, not broad, advises NewsGator’s Berkowitz. “Companies are better off having several highly tailored feeds instead of a larger, catch-all feed,” he says. “And don’t just bury those feeds with a small link from the bottom of a page. Display the RSS feeds prominently and in relevant locations.”

How narrowly can feeds be targeted? What about down to the level of motivated home buyers in particular zip codes? “The cleverest use of RSS I’ve heard of is in the real-estate industry,” Johnson says. Some brokers have feeds that announce, “‘Hey, here’s a home in the zip code you like that just dropped in price.’”

Indeed, the great advantage of RSS applications for direct response marketers is that feeds can be targeted easily for customers with very specific interests. The disadvantage, compared with e-mail marketing, lies in the fact that subscribers don’t have to provide their e-mail addresses. While you’ll know how many subscribers each feed has and how many responses it generates, you won’t necessarily know who the individual subscribers are.

But if you use RSS thoughtfully and well, says Johnson, what you will know about your subscribers is that “they are probably your most rabid customers.”

Jack Gordon is editor at large for Electronic Retailer magazine. We would appreciate your feedback. To submit comments, please e-mail the magazine at [email protected].


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