RSS: Hot or Not for Marketers?

April 3rd, 2005

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DM News covered a controversial new JupiterResearch report on RSS. The blogosphere was quick to respond. Some of the marketer-bloggers that I hold in high regard ?Ä® Seth Godin, Bill Flitter, Rok Hrastnik, and Rick Turoczy ?Ä® weighed in with their thoughts. Others chimed in too, as chronicled here. Some even trashed DM News, like in this thread at Threadwatch.org ?Ä® unfairly in my opinion (Remember the expression “Don’t shoot the messenger.” DM News after all, is only reporting on the JupiterResearch study and its conclusions.). Here’s my reaction to some of the points made in the article/study:

“RSS is not well suited to promotional-offer-oriented content because it does not offer the targeting and personalization capabilities of e-mail, the report said.”

Having been part of the team that developed an email marketing service (namely, GravityMail) from the ground up and honed it over a number of years, with extensive targeting and personalization capabilities built-in, I argue that you CAN target and personalize RSS to the same or similar degree. In fact, you can personalize/customize based on each subscriber’s demographics, psychographics, clickographics, or a combination of all of the above. In order to do so, of course, you’d need to be providing unique feed URLs to each subscriber, not a generic feed URL like www.mycompany.com/myrssfeed.xml. There’s no reason why you can’t collect information from each subscriber before and/or after they subscribe, and then use that information to deliver laser-targeted promotional offers. It’s also feasible to collect data on viewing and click behavior, then use that information to fine-tune the offers over time. You can measure the encoded content reads in RSS items like you would measure HTML opens in email campaigns (both done using “web bugs”), and you can measure the clickthroughs through clicktracked URLs embedded in the feed. More on this here. As Rok notes, out-of-the-box solutions for RSS personalization and targeting already exist: e.g. ByPass, RSS AutoPublisher, and SimpleFeed.

“However, even for use as a supplemental or alternative e-mail broadcast tool, the adoption of RSS for marketing purposes will remain low during the next 24 months.”

My instinct tells me this prediction is going to be waaaay off the mark. RSS adoption of poised to explode. It will be driven by popular web browsers like Internet Explorer and email clients like Outlook shipping with support for RSS built right in, which in my opinion isn’t just inevitable but also imminent. Robert Scoble, technical evangelist at Microsoft and A-list blogger, riffs on his blog: “if you do a marketing site and you don’t have an RSS feed today you should be fired. I’ll say it again. You should be fired if you do a marketing site without an RSS feed. Saying that RSS is only for geeks today is like saying in 1998 that the Web was only for geeks.” Strong words coming from someone in the Microsoft camp as influential as Scoble.

“However, RSS publishing still faces many hurdles: measuring traffic at least on a subscriber level is nearly impossible to do, which will relegate RSS to a broadcast marketing tool in the near term.”

This claim from the study floored me. Measuring traffic at the subscriber level is anything but impossible. Again, simply provide unique feed URLs to each subscriber and you can track track viewing through web bugs and clicking through clicktracked links. Rok points out some services that offer traffic measurement on a subscriber level: SyndicateIQ, RSS AutoPublisher, SimpleFeed, Nooked, and Feedburner.

“RSS could possibly become as cluttered and confusing to consumers as the e-mail marketing channel is currently”

Not sure where the authors of the study are heading here. I presume they are referring to the spam problem. But email and RSS are quite different technologies in regards to susceptibility to spam. RSS is unspammable: no spammer can infiltrate someone else’s RSS feed, and no spammer can cause an RSS feed that’s full of spam to appear on a user’s subscription list. Perhaps they are referring to advertising in RSS feeds? I’m no fan of ads in RSS feeds, but that’s not spam. RSS is opt-in. If a content producer wants to subsidize the costs of producing that content by taking on advertisers who then add unwelcome noise to that content producer’s RSS feed, well removing the feed from my reader is just a click away.

I do think the overriding message from the article and the study is valid: when it comes to RSS, marketers (including your competitors) just don’t get it, and probably won’t, anytime soon. This comes through loud and clear from Jupiter’s survey findings that 45% of marketers have no plans to deploy RSS to supplement e-mail, and only 5% are currently doing so. So, ponder how you can best leverage this opportunity as the giants in your industry sleep!