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There's an invasion of little orange buttons on Web sites, and it has nothing to do with a new marketing campaign from Home Depot.

Often labeled "XML," "RSS," or more recently "Subscribe," feeds are playing a leading role in the user-controlled distribution and fragmentation of Web content.

How It All Began

Feeds have been around for quite a while, but their recent growth has been closely tied to the blogging phenomenon.

In February 2004, blog search engine Technorati (www.technorati.com) tracked roughly 2 million blogs. Two years later, that number had increased 1260%, with content covering a range of topics, including family life, politics, culture, music, sports, business, and many others.

Predictably, blog readership became a bigger part of our daily online content diet. "Blog readership took off in 2004," according to Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

But there was one problem. Unlike most major media Web sites, many blogs—even the most popular ones—are not updated on a predictable schedule. As individuals added blogs to the list of things they read regularly, more time was spent navigating between sites, sometimes finding that the content had not been updated. What they needed was an easier way to aggregate content into one place.

The blog software companies came to the rescue, resurrecting a technology used by Netscape in the 1990s. RSS, short for "really simple syndication," seemed well-suited for the packaging and delivery of blog posts.

Each blog entry is packaged as a separate "item" in a file, offered to readers via its own feed subscription URL on the site. These URLs provide a mechanism to permanently subscribe to any new content from the site and get that content in any piece of software that speaks the feed language, allowing readers to subscribe to the content of multiple blogs in one centralized piece of software (usually referred to as an aggregator or feed reader).

When the orange buttons started to appear on blogs, it gave rise to a whole new audience segment for digital content. Individuals needed feed readers or content aggregators for their desktops and mobile devices in order to subscribe to and read feeds, and we needed tools to help us search and find content in feeds.

Beyond the Blog

While feeds may have been synonymous with blogs in 2004, today they cover an increasingly broad spectrum of content. Blogs and online media publishers were early adopters of feeds, but now the Web properties for most media companies—including newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters—include links for feeds.

And companies in a variety of industries are making feeds available as part of their marketing communications mix. A feed subscriber can receive travel specials, new arrivals at a favorite retail store, auction status, and search results. Feed content is taking on the same diversity as Web sites.

Why the big uptake among publishers?

For one, feeds are generally easy to create, and as more and more users opt for subscription over browsing and bookmarking favorite sites, publishers are well-positioned to capitalize on a new content delivery channel. Feeds have distinct advantages over other forms of electronic communication. The opt-in nature of a feed subscription is a clear signal that the reader is interested in the message. Feed subscriptions bypass spam filters, ensuring reliable delivery. Feeds create a persistent connection to the subscriber.

Whereas email newsletters often have some frequency associated with them—daily, weekly, monthly—when you publish an update to your feed, a subscriber's feed reader will pick it up the next time it polls for new content. Subscribers don't have to remember to check their favorite Web sites for new content or worry that they are missing breaking news.

Feeds as Advertising Media

As the audience for feeds has reached critical mass, marketers have become increasingly interested in reaching customers through syndicated content. At the same time, content publishers are becoming increasingly interested in monetizing content distributed via feeds. This has created demand for additional analytics around feed consumption—namely, reach and demographic profiles of feed subscribers—and we now have ad networks and ad servers built specifically for feeds.

Media planners are recognizing that an ad program focused only on a Web property might miss an important customer segment—those that are receiving content via a feed rather than on the site. According to a recent study by PQ media, spending on blog, podcast, and RSS advertising is expected to increase 145% in 2006.

"Advertisers are beginning to take advantage of content syndication in many ways," according to Media Contacts, a unit of international ad agency Havas. Feed subscribers are generally a more tech-savvy group of buyers, often the first to recommend new services, technologies, and products to their circle.

A year ago, advertisers might have had a difficult time placing a significant ad buy in feeds. Today, companies are aggregating and organizing content for targeting purposes, measuring audience size and behavior, and delivering millions of ads in feeds each day. Feeds are likely to become a standard component of an interactive media plan.

Feed Future

What's the future for feeds? The publishing and adoption trends will continue. Feeds provide too much utility to individuals to be ignored. Publishers will figure out how and where to promote their feeds in site navigation, and consumers will be helped along by technology, such as Microsoft's integration of feeds into the browser.

The feed train has left the station, and it appears to be picking up steam.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brent Hill is vice-president of business development for FeedBurner (www.feedburner.com), a leader in feed management and operator of the largest advertising network for feeds.