Delivering messages that get the attention of a target market is getting tougher and tougher. As consumers are overwhelmed by the quantity of information online, they filter the content they receive and consume. Concurrently, as search engine optimization loses its mystery and becomes widely used by marketers, popularity and relevancy vie for dominance.

Then there's RSS, a technology that allows consumers to select sources of messages they want to receive continuously. At its core, RSS presents awesome opportunities for building customer relationships by increasing awareness and the perceived value of a brand.

Last week, in part one of this series, we explained why RSS is the next big thing online. This week, we look deeper into how marketers can use the new technology to improve customer relationships.

In this article, first we review its potential impact as a marketing tool, demonstrated by three business examples where RSS could be applied with powerful results. Second, we speculate about how marketers will apply its unique capabilities in the future, and we provide steps to help you get started.

The Way Things Work

There's no real mystery to RSS once you understand how it functions. RSS essentially enables automated Web surfing. Customers identify and continuously "pull" information from sources that are relevant rather than manually search the Web for content at a specific moment in time.

Here's how it works:

Feed providers create content that is then turned into XML code. That code identifies it in a consistent manner for the aggregators, which in turn distribute the relevant content identification to the end user who has subscribed to it. The end user then clicks on the content that's of interest.

Figure 1. Content Syndication Process Through RSS

RSS will have broad implications as it's more widely adopted by Web users:

1. Messaging

RSS adoption will increase message credibility. Every RSS feed must possess content that the reader wants to receive. Promising discounts and special promotions may fail to work in many instances (consumer packaged goods and other frequent or repeat purchase items may be the only exceptions). In most cases, marketing messages will require increasingly more valuable content to motivate readers to receive a marketer's RSS feed.

2. Blogs

Like RSS, blogging allows extremely easy publishing. Blogs are simply online logs or diaries. There are millions of them out there on every subject imaginable. Like traditional Web sites, you had to visit a blog to see its newest content. Monitoring the burgeoning number of blogs can be vital for competitive intelligence, product research, or skill and knowledge improvement. Monitoring blog content can also be a source of entertainment and education.

The blogging phenomenon has placed a new set of demands on search engines as they struggle to keep up with the exponential growth of content.

To combat encroachment by undocumented Web content, leading search engines such as Google and Yahoo are experimenting with ways to search RSS feeds and integrate RSS functionality in their blogging services. In fact, one of the highest-profile moves made by Google prior to its public offering was to purchase Blogger—a free on line blogging tool.

3. Search Engine Optimization

Soon, the process of search engine optimization, once restricted only to static Web pages, is almost certain to include RSS feeds. Certainly a relevant RSS feed would improve your ranking on traditional search engines as your content spreads faster across the Web and links you to more sites as people post discussions about your content.

Three Cases

To clarify how all this might work in the real world of marketing, we've supplied a few examples.

The key here is to recognize the type of content being applied to the marketing problem. Remember, we are looking for content that is both perishable (irrelevant or outdated quickly) and builds brand (makes prospects' "knowledge set" more like your best customers, and your offering less risky to purchase).

1. A large shipping and logistics company

Business problem

Grow share of a commoditized business where more and more purchase decisions are made solely on price.

RSS solution

Shipping company could build an RSS feed about the latest news and intelligence in the logistics and supply chain space showing midsize companies how to use the same tools and techniques that large companies use so that they are able to enjoy the same economies of scale that the largest companies do.


Customers are more educated about the value proposition of the vendor, who can utilize more of the shipper's higher-margin products.

2. A TV station

Business problem

Improve the credibility and profile of its local news.

RSS solution

A set of RSS feeds are deployed offering a range of news products, including up-to-the-minute local headlines and emergency weather. RSS feeds could also be configured to easily turn into SMS text for cell phones and pagers for more critical emergency information.


Improved credibility (a perceived better proximity to the latest news) and increased "first choice" and "top of mind" status. These benefits can be substantiated through cross-channel promotion of the new RSS services. New products of sponsors gain profile and new promotional opportunities for sales bundling.

3. A Web hosting service

Business problem

Differentiation from competitors selling the same service—commoditization.

RSS solution

Multiple RSS feeds on the subject of security, tailored for different levels of user sophistication. A separate feed for very sophisticated security experts, IT administrators and laypersons—with relevant helpful advice for each segment.


Enhanced credibility around the security issue as a point of differentiation; added relevancy for each of their target customer segments. "Trusted advisor" status that distinguishes the offering.

The Future of RSS

RSS is going mainstream. Companies continue to experiment with ways to use and distribute RSS feeds. Changes in the future of content are likely to be driven by RSS and devices used to capture RSS feeds.

The following are three noteworthy developments likely to have significant consequences.

1. RSS & Rich Media

RSS is a simple standard for moving content across the Web. The next step in its evolution is a standardized way to syndicate rich media and other "heavy" broadband content.

Currently, users might download a few songs and listen to them on MP3 players. A rich media RSS standard (RM RSS) would allow publishers to make such content available online in the same way that news articles are today. Instead of simply streaming audio or video, we see users and content providers enabled to create personal broadband "channels" with a RM RSS viewers.

TiVo has been hacked. This kind of application also opens the door for more inventive content. Consumers, relieved of the tedium of suffering through irrelevant content, might be willing to experiment with new formats and types of content from a trusted supplier.

Some says that if RSS gets integrated with programs like Bit Torrent (efficient peer-to-peer large file sharing programs similar to Kazaa), we would have the functionality of TiVo on our personal computer.

In other words, we would no longer be sitting in front of our TV set at an inconvenient time waiting to watch our favorite show. Instead, Bit Torrent would distribute files of the show just a few hours after the show has aired, and RSS aggregators would update us on new files created and distributed through Bit Torrent. We can, then, choose to open the file or the link at our convenience on our computer without even having a TV set.

One downside is that illegitimate uses of this system would obviously abound, and traditional TV networks may need to check copyright infringers. Additionally, rich Web content (including advertainment and long form infomercials) could be pulled to the television.

2. RSS on Other Platforms

RSS is not limited to Web pages––far from it. RSS feeds have been popping up in many services. The lightweight nature of its code makes it ideally suited for new devices.

For example, instant messaging services are well suited for delivering headlines to users, as is the Short Message Service (SMS) for GSM-based mobile phones. By acting as a value-add between the content providers, third-party service providers, and the end user, RSS can provide a very simple way of creating thousands of relevant content products in a number of different forms, customized to the device and, thus, to the user.

3. Blogging

As an effective tactic to develop content for eventual RSS deployment, employees should be encouraged to blog. Blogging can be a great reporting tool and a means to build good working habits. It also builds self-esteem and writing skills.

Employee blogs can be a source of valuable insight into your company's value proposition. Remind employees why you want them to blog (you want to know what's important to them—and why) and to treat their blogs as public information (no secrets or gossip). Encourage them to keep posts short and to post news items that they find relevant.

Remember: blogging can be made quite secure. Still, err on the side of keeping things tight and design a chain of editorial control to keep the ugly stuff from getting outside the company.

Ten Steps to Get Started

  1. Download a reader. Don't procrastinate; "feeling it" is your first step to understanding how this new technology is going to improve your business.

  2. Load up on your favorite sites. Choose everything you think you might like. Go ahead. Pig out. You'll learn something right away.

  3. Notice how much content there is? Want to start reducing the flow? Go ahead and readjust your preference. Lesson: there is a TON of stuff out there. RSS can be a time suck just like email. Content needs to be really good—or you're off the reader for good.

  4. Sit down with your IT people and get their read on RSS. You'll be surprised. Most IT professionals are using RSS. Don't be surprised, though, if you get the "dog watching a card trick" look when you suggest you want to set up a feed. Your IT person may have a hard time imagining what kind of content you want to syndicate. Be prepared to answer them completely.

  5. Prepare to explain yourself. You'll need to give that explanation. Remember that the best RSS content is the most perishable and non-confidential. It still needs to be cool. Anyone in your organization who has used RSS will have an instinct about this. Be prepared to support your arguments relative to the email and other content initiatives you have under way. Keep in mind that email is one-to-one, Web sites are one-to-many once, and RSS is one-to-many regularly.

  6. Get you content ready. Critical to effective use of RSS is to review your content strategy. What kind of content are you currently producing? What is the intent of the content? Who is its target? What are the metrics by which the content is measured? Content must fit the functionality of the channel. Similar to search engine optimization, RSS data needs metadata. If you slept through Latin, metadata just means data about data. You need very short, coded, simple English descriptions about your content.

  7. In the very near future, metadata is going to become critical to embedded search functions all the way down to the system level on your computer. Getting in the habit of defining and describing all your content will put you well ahead of the game as new tools for finding information emerge.

  8. Review blogs to find the zeitgeist of your company. Research the topics that people are discussing in their blogs. Generate relevant content that leverages the gestalt of your company with the concerns of your customers.

  9. Choose a format. If you are just starting out, we recommend RSS2.0. It's just out, is backwards compatible, and has been kept reasonably simple to deploy. Your IT administrator should be able to manage the details here. Publish solutions that help prospects become as informed as your best customers. Keep the articles short. Refine them to be easily described and summarized.

  10. Consider new forms of content. In this and other documents, we've alluded to the vast potential of RSS to syndicate all kinds of content. We've even successfully syndicated rich media presentations to demonstrate the potentials of this technology.

Staging for Success

Generally, we recommend three stages of content deployment:

  1. Paid or premium content (cash in exchange for content)

  2. Email newsletter recipients (customer info in exchange for content)

  3. RSS and PR aggregators (if relevant)

Deploying RSS means that you need to consider staging your content. That means setting up a serial flow of your content that leverages the value of the relationship you have with the content's recipient or audience. Time is money, and getting something first has considerably more value than getting something later. While we advocate giving knowledge away to make smarter and better customers, we also want to control who sees our best and when they see it. We want to reward those who share with us first.

After the content is built, consider who will value the content most and who's invested personal information in you. Reward that audience first. Syndication should come after your more intimate constituency has had a look.

Typically, the final stage of deployment should coincide immediately around any press release that might accompany your content. Not all RSS content needs PR support; in fact, you don't want to clog the PR channel with content (or eventually you will be ignored.) But you do want to make sure that when PR is used, the release itself is posted in your RSS feed.

In short, all PR should be part of your RSS feed. But not all RSS feeds need be released to the PR aggregators.

Indeed, RSS (like any media channel that has preceded it) presents awesome opportunities for building customer relationships by increasing awareness and the perceived value of your brand, and lowering the perceived risk of engaging with your sales people or customers. But, like any "awesome opportunity," there is also the risk that you will clog the channel, abuse the attention of your audience or betray your business' inability to effectively utilize technology. Most everyone has experienced the bad Web site, the inappropriate email or the infuriating popup.

Users love RSS the same way they love TiVo or email when they first use it. But at the same time, be mindful of long-term limitations. Remember AOL's "You've got mail" ads? Don't see those much anymore, do you? The customer relationship with email has changed because of spam.

Before you proceed in your efforts to deploy RSS, have a communication strategy rooted in customer value. Make sure to stage and secure your content to gain the most from it, and enjoy your new status as strategic publisher.

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