RSS is in its infancy. But the velocity of its adoption confirms that it is one of the most important media developments in recent years.

As consumers take more active control of the messaging and content they consume, reaching them gets tougher. RSS will aid in the active, real-time, automated filtering of an ever-growing supply of content.

First, a definition: RSS (Really Simple Syndication, or Rich Site Summary) is an XML-based format for easily distributing and aggregating Web content (such as news headlines). Users determine their favorite Web sites and a properly configured RSS aggregator will syndicate selected lists of hyperlinks and headlines, along with other information about the Web sites, then display the contents on the user's desktop at regular intervals. The user decides to follow the link or not.

Think of RSS like broadcasting on the Web. When people tell you RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, it is important to understand what "syndication" is. In the case of the Web, syndication refers to the propagation of content. With RSS, content gets to consumers faster than ever.

Speed alone doesn't explain why RSS is growing:

  • It's spamless—nothing comes unsolicited.

  • It's (for the most part) anonymous for recipients (no salesman will call).

  • It makes staying up to date easier (no fruitless searching of favorite sites).

  • It puts its users in charge of the flow of information (pull versus push) while it makes content consumption more efficient.

Those are big customer benefits. They are benefits to marketers, too.

Strategically, RSS adoption means...

  • How customers choose to hear from you reflects their fondness and interests, as well as the effectiveness of your communication in different online channels.

  • As content get easier for publishers to distribute AND for consumers to filter, demand for it grows.

  • Content needs to be further tailored to specific channels.

  • Marketers can leverage and control the flow of information with more precision.

  • Waiting to deploy content via RSS could mean a loss in share of voice.

  • Customers may want to reconfigure their relationship to your content.

Like anything else that's new, however, there are issues with RSS. At this point, only the cool kids are using it.

Essentially, that means if you market to, or publish for, the cool kids, you need it; if you don't, you still have more time to learn about it.

Here's why.

Some aggregators are still tweaking their offerings. In the past, some have hammered sites with searches for content that look a lot like denial of service attacks. Furthermore, there are many RSS software readers and clients to choose from and install.

Those not on the bleeding edge of technology adoption are typically not motivated to install more software. Still, when the great browser migration begins (driven by Explorer's terminal flaws ) to Opera and Firefox, the RSS adoption surge will have started with it, as browsers are integrating RSS readers (that means no new software to install beyond the browser itself).

Safari's next iteration will integrate RSS as well. Don't think that pokey Microsoft loyalists will be left out, either. Longhorn promises to be the final alarm (in 2006) for techno-phobic or dubious marketers waiting to see if RSS is a fad or not.

'Opt-in' on the Way out?

If you send email newsletters, you better know about RSS—or you risk having your most valuable customers miss your most important messages. The reason RSS is so quickly related to email is that the vast majority of email is now "pushed." When media moves from "pull" to "push" status, it loses some of its cachet, and thus, some of its value.

Yes, opt-in email newsletters, by definition are "pulled." But measured as a share of inbox, over 50% of email is spam, and, therefore, most email is pushed. One could even argue that "opt-in" is pushed when it is not customized for the individual recipient.

(Note: email customization is important to distinguish from personalization. Personalization is essentially using the right surname and associating the email with a recipient in a database. Customization implies tracking and conditional content—content driven by data associated with the recipient. Simply: customization implies personalization—personalization does not imply customization.)

Historically, with the emergence of any new media channel, pundits will announce the end of its predecessor. Radio would kill newspaper, TV would kill radio, the Internet would kill TV and so on.

It never happens. Still, it is important to acknowledge that the opposite is true for storage formats; the LP did kill the 78; the CD killed the LP; the DVD killed videotape.

If anyone should be scared of the implications of RSS, it's the cable guys. Enthusiasts are hacking TiVo to pull all kinds of stuff off the Web. It is very easy to imagine TiVo hooked into the Internet via DSL, pulling down RSS feeds of shows you like (no cable or satellite company—just Ma Bell) and demonstrations of products you are interested in purchasing.

Still, don't think for a minute that local news will go away on television—any more than right-wing talk shows will drop from the radio dial. In the same vein, RSS will not replace the opt-in email newsletter. It is the newsletter and its recipients that will change substantially.

Growing "pull" demand requires cross-channel presence. By definition, "pull" content requires users to "find" that content in order to be able to pull it.

You can't have an RSS feed without a site. No one will come to the site or subscribe to a feed without some "push." Email has been maligned for years because of spam. RSS appears to some as email's replacement.

Don't believe it for a minute. Email still wins point to point. RSS is not, nor was it ever intended to be, a one-to-one communication channel. While RSS does allow tracking, the tracking it allows has nowhere near the granularity or sophistication offered by email.

Broadcast or Point-to-Point?

The decision is in the details. And this is an incredibly important detail; it is the lynchpin in developing an integrated online content and communication strategy that includes RSS. It bears repeating: RSS is broadcast—one to many. Legitimate email is point to point.

Perhaps the most profound effect of RSS mass adoption will be to make this distinction very clear to marketers and customers alike. Furthermore—and to some, ironically—eemail will drive many users to adopt RSS.

As marketers, we should aggressively facilitate this understanding and match our content to the channel. The greatest irony of all is that RSS might save the email newsletter.

This Is How We Do It

The strategic realities of wider RSS adoption manifest themselves in tactics like the ones to be used for the management of this very document.

Those who read it first will have paid to do so. Even visitors and subscribers of Mediathink—my company—will not have access to this article for several weeks to allow paying customers first (premium) access.

Eventually, Mediathink will email this document to subscribers in our database, and we will also urge them to read up on RSS, load a reader, and click on our RSS button to receive our content as soon as it updates. Finally, we'll post this document to our site for syndication.

This is key. In the content deployment process, syndication comes last—just like TV and film. Hit shows go into syndication after they've run on their home network. Movie people call their content distribution strategy "windowing"—first theaters, then rental/sales and pay per view, then paid cable and finally broadcast.

Soon we'll begin polling our subscribers to review their preferences again (all email marketers should do this kind of data maintenance). Then we'll begin the process of pruning our email database.

As a B2B marketer selling our services, we don't want to send email to AOL, MSN, Comcast or any of the big ISPs unless our customer insists. For most B2B marketers, these addresses are almost valueless—we need legitimate business email addresses, or there's no telling whom we're sending our content to.

In a B2C context, the big ISPs are essential even though the address itself provides little customer info. Still, there are other data markers that will tell you when and how the customer likes his or her content.

Remember: Email wins point to point. We want to optimize for that. While an argument can be made that much of email's functionality is superfluous, no one can claim that click-through and purchase behavior that drives conditional content is. We want intimacy when our clients/customers do. We want to mirror their desire to know us.

While I'm as sick to death of relationship analogies and Internet communications as anyone, no one wants to get too deep too soon. The customer MUST be enabled to define the depth of the marketing relationship. RSS provides the perfect platform between the one time, anonymous Web site hit and the deep, and often wasted, intimacy of email communication.

Distinguish Your Content

To illustrate, here's an anecdotal example of how RSS and email can work together in the B2C context of an airline.

Delta Airlines sends me several opt-in newsletters. In my opinion, some of that content would work better in an RSS feed, while other content works best only as email.

I receive special fare offers to cities that I've selected, from cities that I've selected. This is conditional customized content that comes to me when conditions that are part of my data set are met. This content should continue to come as email. But...

I also receive generic offers that are strictly price-driven, with no conditions around my preferences other than my home airport. They are great offers; I like getting them; but, given the nature of the offer (low price), they are not tailored to my profile.

These offers should come via RSS when I'm in the mood to travel. I could subscribe to the feed prior to a vacation or mood, and then unsubscribe when it's not relevant. This makes the offers more urgent, too—helping Delta move their clearance inventory faster. RSS users will know that EVERYONE is seeing the offer, so interested parties will find incentive to move quickly.

If I were a very frequent flyer, I might subscribe to an RSS feed for security wait times only when I'm traveling—being notified only when airports I'm interested in have delays. I wouldn't have to profile myself—so anyone, not just Delta—could provide me that information.

What a great opportunity for a travel provider, who has no current relationship with me, to offer up a valuable unilateral concession and build some brand equity.

Saving Your Relationship

It is that comfortable, middle ground, low-level commitment that makes RSS such a potentially cool branding tool. Furthermore, RSS solves a substantial part of the email deliverability problem by allowing marketers a process to "build down" some of their customer relationships.

Nobody opts out anymore. Addresses kicking back? Open rates down? By all means, fix your outbound email program. Once you've done that, dig into the data and send compelling RSS invites.

A less intimate customer relationship is better than no relationship at all. Better to have someone taking an RSS feed than to subscribe to your newsletter and then, later, build a spam rule for you.

Share of voice, across channels, is becoming a critical measurement of strategic media planning effectiveness. The fastest way to grow it is by seizing on a new communication channel.

If you market anything, RSS has put you in the content business—whether you use RSS or not. Each additional communication channel means more places and ways to learn about your product.

You must master these channels or risk being mastered by them. Just as radio, print and TV work best together for effective advertisers, email, Web sites and RSS work best together—not exclusively or in opposition. You must generate valuable content for every relevant channel you can afford, or you will be displaced in the minds of consumers by those who do.

Marketers Are From Mars, Customers Are From Venus

What is so fundamentally important—regardless of where you or your customers are on the technology adoption curve—is that customers often choose communication channels impulsively, without explanation or logic.

As RSS emerges, "pull" communications become as important as "push," eventually growing even more so. This is the sea change that eventually will affect all of marketing communications.

Managing and growing "pull" content requires a mastery of content development and deployment strategies. What you tell, to whom and how, and when you can tell it, become equally important considerations. Just as what you should tell, to whom and when, become strategic issues. These are the challenges and issues that increased sophistication around "pull" content poses.

The Web demands that we feed visitors relevant content or risk losing our relationship with them. RSS is a technology that forces us, yet again, to confront an increasing need to communicate with our customers more efficiently and in more varied ways, as often as our market allows.

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Tom Barnes is CEO of Mediathink (, a consultancy specializing in media and marketing strategy and implementation. Contact him at