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From the CEO's Desk: Prepping RSS for Prime Time

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With all the hype in the past few months about RSS taking over the world, I've been getting myself up to speed by meeting with some of the companies in the space, by publishing my own blog and RSS feed, and by re-launching our company's Web site as a blog with an RSS feed.

There has been a proliferation of startups in the last two years that are focused on RSS. These companies are hitting the new technology from every angle, and they're doing everything they can to get it ready for prime time. It's not quite there yet, but we're getting closer. What do I mean by "ready for prime time?"

Critical Mass: We need to have 25 million or more end users really using RSS, not just the tech/finance/journalist axis that dominates usership today. We need hundreds of mainstream publishers and marketers using RSS, not just a handful of businesses and loads of individuals or small sites.

We probably need another name for it that doesn't sound so geeky, either. I heard recently that Google is going to start calling RSS by the much-friendlier moniker "Web Feeds"; that in and of itself would help encourage usage.

Ease of Use: It needs to be easy to get in the game as a consumer, easy to publish as a business. It is called Really Simple Syndication, after all, and it's not even close yet, either in terms of technology or awareness.


On the consumer side, subscribing is getting easier, but anything that either needs a plug-in or yet another Web site to bookmark in order to work really well isn't quite easy enough. And the process we had to go through at Return Path in order to easily publish an RSS feed and update it regularly was time consuming, non-obvious, and in the end not exactly what we wanted it to be.

Organization: Making sure RSS doesn't quickly fall into the "information overload" bucket as the number of publishers proliferates and as the number of hours in people's day remains constant. Two years ago, I happily read 10 RSS feeds. Now I have about 50, which is quite frankly about 10 or 15 more than I can really handle, and I have to consistently purge old ones as new ones become available.

The world needs better directories, search capabilities, feed customization, keyword feed aggregation, and the like, when every single Web site and individual has its own RSS feed. Ultimately, the world will also need some kind of rating system or reputation system to help end users determine whether they want a new feed.

Multi-Channel: Making RSS work with other channels the same way email has come to work with direct mail, and banners have come to work with brand advertising, will be critical to its success as a content and media vehicle. It's great that it's the new, new thing these days. But, ultimately, the people who spend the money to syndicate content or advertise against it will come to view it not as its own thing but as another part of the media mix that needs to be included in a publishing or media strategy.

Presentation: Giving publishers greater control over exactly how end users see feeds will also be important. At this stage in the game, HTML is pretty standardized. There are still the occasional things that don't look quite right in a browser, but the world overwhelmingly uses a mere two or three browser types. HTML email is a little more complicated, and nicely designed email campaigns can and do "break" periodically in one client or another (Lotus Notes, anyone?); but, again, the number of email clients out there is relatively limited.

The last time I checked, there were over 1,000 different kinds of RSS feeds and readers out there, and the number seems to be proliferating rather than consolidating. That's a producer's nightmare!

Revenue: Oh, yeah, that little thing. Like many new media, RSS started out very much in the "something for nothing" category. But whether it's ads in feeds, driving people to Web sites, subscription revenue, or something else, the world has to figure out how RSS will contribute to the bottom line if it is to be commercially viable.

Accountability: Good stats, reporting, and tracking are all musts; at this point, these things are pay-to-play functions for marketers who use addressable media. Most of these things are better than they were a year ago, but they're still not quite there yet.

Personalization: The thing that RSS junkies love about RSS is that it's anonymous. That's the same thing that marketers and publishers will ultimately come to hate about it. It's difficult to deliver relevant messages, whether content or advertising, to someone if you know nothing about the person and if you treat that person like everyone else on your list (unless you have a super niche list). Look for various vendors to come out with one-to-one RSS feed capabilities soon to crack this nut.

It will be interesting to see how RSS unfolds as a medium in the coming year or two. It won't be too long now before all of the challenges noted above go away as quickly as you can download a podcast!


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Matt Blumberg is the CEO, founder and driving force behind Return Path (www.returnpath.biz). Read his blog at onlyonce.blogs.com.

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