Published in American Demographics. September 2004.
Everyone talks about how quickly things change on the Internet. Yesterday’s innovation is pass tomorrow. In fact, since search engines surged into use about a decade ago, and especially since the introduction of Google six years ago, nothing has really transformed Net usage. What began with search engines, and was perfected by Google, was easy access. People could find that they were looking for; Web addresses became increasingly meaningless. All you had to do was Google it. That Google is now a widely accepted verb is testimony to its impact. You might say that Google has gone from zero to 64 million in six years. It was a monumental change; nothing has come close yet. RSS just may have the potential to be as monumental as Google.
Search engines and e-mail are the current killer apps of the Web, and I think RSS is the next one says Tom Barnes, CEO of Mediathink, an Atlanta-based consulting firm that released a white paper entitled RSS: The Next Big Thing On Line in July. For the uninitiated, RSS most commonly stands for Really Simple Syndication and essentially allows all types of information Web sites to broadcast their site updates to any user who subscribes to their RSS feeds. However, this is not your grandmother’s syndication. There is no huge newswire with reporters around the world feeding articles to newspapers. Rather, users are in complete control of the information they receive. Employing a program called an aggregator or newsreader, users can access any of millions of RSS feeds ranging from front page stories in The New York Timesto price drops on digital cameras via CNET, and every blog in between.
The power of RSS makes it difficult to compare it to traditional media. Calling it syndication evokes visions of I Love Lucyreruns or Oprah’s talk show being broadcast across the country. But that isn’t RSS. Many people describe RSS as TiVo for the Web. Part of what makes TiVo so appealing is the ability to pick and choose from across the network spectrum and record those shows you’re interested in. RSS, however, records an entire opt-in spectrum of feeds, rather than one show at a time. It’s like being able to choose your cable package with On Demand channels only. That way, when you get home from work, rather than watching what’s on at that time, you are provided with a list of every show that has appeared on your chosen channel lineup since the last time you watched. This way, if you only watch ESPN, HBO and NBC, you only need to subscribe to those 3 stations. And for those who watch 100 different channels, RSS can handle that too by spidering across all the sites you’ve chosen and posting update signs and signals for each of them.
Control is the point. When you browse your updated RSS headlines in your aggregator, you only need to click through to where your interest lies. If The New York Times business section has no stories that interest you on a given day, then there’s no need to even visit the site. Prior to RSS, you had to check the site just to see the headlines.
Content is king again, says Robert Mendez, CEO of NetHawk Interactive, Inc., a firm that works with tech companies on marketing strategies. NetHawk’s message to its customers is simple: embrace RSS technology. Augment the marketing you do now with RSS. Take all that information you’re shoving down people’s throats through e-mails, newsletters and Web sites and start a few feeds. With e-mail inboxes cluttered with newsletters, and spam filters working so effectively that they are blocking even non-spam marketing messages, Mendez thinks RSS is a good choice for getting a company’s word out. E-mail is where knowledge goes to die. Everyone has a stack of folders in their e-mail, have you ever tried to find something that happened 6 months ago? What this new channel [RSS] allows is for you to wrap yourself around the information and search it very easily.
RSS changes the way people access information on the Internet. It puts the onus of matching readers to content where it belongs: on the publisher, explains Clay Shirky, a highly respected voice in the world of social software and a professor in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. The old expectation was that the user would do all the work. Most sites are not updated that frequently. What RSS does is it lets people off the hook for searching. Everyone’s pattern before RSS was, I’m not going to pay attention to a little Web site, I’m going to go to the big guys and trust them to look at everything else. Now, anyone with an aggregator has the power to pull information from any number of sources as it is published. You don’t need the big guys and you don’t need to visit 10 different Web sites for information in 10 different areas. You can plug the feeds for those sites into your aggregator and be informed of their updates as they happen.
More and more publishers are jumping on board every day. In July, The Wall Street Journal added RSS feeds and The New York Times upped its feed count to 27, thereby allowing users interested in specific sections to receive headlines for just those sections. They also added a feed of the most e-mailed articles, allowing users to read only those articles which others found interesting enough to send to their friends or colleagues. For the Times, RSS drives a million page views a month. The news organization’s feeds come with the headline and a one-line abstract. These feeds are also completely ad-free, although when users click through to read the full story, they get the normal site advertising. Catherine Levine, vice president, product, business development and strategy for New York Times Digital, doesn’t see adding advertising to RSS any time soon. If it turns out to be a viable advertising medium we would certainly consider it, Levine states. Our goal with RSS is to distribute the headlines; it’s really a distribution point for us.
One of the problems with distributing this way, is that at this point, quantifying usage for RSS is a very difficult undertaking. Because aggregators tend to check for updates from feeds at time intervals, e.g., they’ll check a feed every half hour, a hit doesn’t necessarily mean a view. Probably the biggest business challenge of RSS is the lack of concrete knowledge about usage. I have a sense of how much traffic I see from the feed and it’s risen every month this year and it’s growing around the company. However, I can’t tell whether that [growth] comes from 100,000 people, 50,000 people or a really active 10,000, explains John Roberts, associate vice president, product development for CNET News.com. CNET’s tech savvy News.com is presumed to be one of the more popular RSS feeds. News.com has seen huge increases in RSS traffic in the past few months, jumping to over 5.4 million requests during a week in June from 4.2 million requests in a week in March. While that number doesn’t necessarily reflect the total number of users of the News.com RSS, it certainly indicates the growth in popularity of the feed.
Chicago-based FeedBurner is trying to fill that quantitative hole in the market by giving RSS publishers some hard data. If publishers run their feed through us, we track all the clicks that come through the feed and report that to them. We can provide detailed statistics tracking the usage of your feed: How many readers you have, when it’s being accessed, what they’re clicking, etcetera, says Dick Costolo, CEO of FeedBurner. This lack of reliable usage data is a sure sign that RSS is still in its infancy. While it is a potentially powerful tool, most experts believe the technology is within 12 to 36 months of moving past it’s early adopter phase to wider consumer use.
Right now, the audience [for RSS] is bloggers and aggregators as opposed to regular Joes. But I think that’s beginning to change as people know more about it and get a better sense of it, explains Eric Easter, senior manager, communications for WashingtonPost.com. Right now, the page views are more likely to come through a blog, by people linking through to The Washington Post.
Early adopters of RSS tend to be bloggers or blog readers, and are a highly influential bunch. In a recent online survey of over 17,000 blog readers, Blogads found that over 43 percent of respondents said friends would describe them as an opinion maker. Blogads is a company that helps bloggers place ads on their sites. Easter and other publishers providing RSS are relying on these opinion leaders to send readers back to their sites. The survey also showed that these blog readers are wealthier than many would have imagined, with their demographic profile indicating that nearly 40 percent bring in $90,000 or more a year. Of course, the real money in RSS will come in the future, as it moves out of the early adopter stages.
Mark Fletcher is one of those early adopters. He is best known for his previous company, ONElist, which eventually was bought out and became Yahoo! Groups. Obviously, Fletcher has a knack for creating a useful product that fits a niche in the market. His new product, Bloglines, is a Web-based RSS aggregator that he created for the same reason he created ONElist seven years ago: he wanted it. In late 2001, I found I was visiting about 100 Web sites on a regular basis that had items I was interested in. I wanted to see if there was a solution to that, and I found it in RSS and aggregation. At that point there was no easy Web-based service to subscribe to all these. So I created a site to address my own RSS needs, which became Bloglines in July 2003. In one short year, Bloglines has become the most popular aggregator, according to FeedBurner, consistently topping its weekly charts. Though both Fletcher and FeedBurner declined to share specific numbers of users, Fletcher did report that the number is in the tens of thousands. According to comScore Media Metrix, 97,000 people visited Bloglines.com in June of this year.
For its first anniversary, the Bloglines site was redesigned, features were added and it was announced that advertising would be added in the future. Google has proved the model that if you’re able to target advertising well and do it in a text ad, you can be successful, says Fletcher. With Google, they have just a very little bit of information, just the keyword the user is searching for. We have a lot more info about a given user. We know what you’re subscribed to and the items you’ve already read, for example. All this information will put Bloglines, and other aggregators, near the front of the line to cash in on RSS. The average Bloglines user has 21 feeds, though some have over 1,000 (Fletcher’s current count is 177). In short, it’s not hard to paint a fairly accurate picture of a user based on his or her interests and reading habits; this is the kind of information that advertisers salivate over. Equally valuable may be the relationship that can be developed through RSS.
For marketers, RSS will provide a viable direct connection with consumers, either through in-house product feeds, or through ads in external feeds. Philosophically, major brands are going to have to get into the content business. Companies need to build content in order to get people to come to them, says Mediathink’s Barnes. Companies must be careful, however, because while RSS is a powerful tool, the user holds much of that power. With one-click unsubscribe, marketers need to work closely with publishers to deliver the right ad through the RSS channel. Publishers are forced to be more conscious of the ad quality and quantity, because it is so easy to unsubscribe from RSS, explains Bill Flitter, vice president of marketing for Pheedo, a Walnut Creek, Calif.-based company that connects marketers to the fragmented RSS/Weblog audience. Pheedo projects that RSS advertising will account for 2 percent of the online ad budget in the U.S. by 2007, representing about $35.8 million. What’s more, the company expects RSS advertising to erode 12 percent of the revenues from e-mail in the next year and a half.
For businesses, RSS provides an interesting new approach to inter-office communication. Combined with company blogs, RSS can offer a powerful way for managers to communicate with employees and for employees to communicate with each other. We see a lot of companies having employees create internal Weblogs so that they can talk about what they’re working on, says Greg Reinacker, CEO of NewsGator Technologies, creator of RSS aggregation software. We also see a lot of companies replacing internal mailing lists with RSS.
The business market for RSS is a potentially huge one, and no one is more aware of that than Reinacker.
NewsGator’s flagship product is an RSS aggregator that works with Microsoft Outlook. With the popularity of Outlook, especially in the business world, the possibilities are tremendous. By integrating an aggregator into a product with which so many people are familiar and comfortable, NewsGator is hoping to make RSS accessible to the masses. NewsGator Technologies also encompasses NewsGator Online Services, which has a Web-based subscription-funded aggregator, a competitor to Bloglines’ Web-based service. NewsGator is using value-added services to attract users. For one, NewsGator has premium content RSS feeds, licensed from publishers, exclusively for its customers. Additionally, NewsGator provides clients with custom search feeds. These allow users to search for a particular word or URL and, typically within an hour or so when it actually happens, [this custom feed will return any new pages that match the criteria].
While features are nice, for RSS to move to the mainstream it must become less complicated. At present, there is no easy way to add feeds to an aggregator, a major hurdle for potential users. In addition, many regular Net users just don’t understand how the whole thing works and, at the moment, no one is doing a very good job of explaining it.Still, the future for RSS seems to be a bright one. Most RSS publishers point to the technology’s potential for multimedia. You always have more content than you could ever use on the site, says Easter of WashingtonPost.com. But if people could pull down what’s available, then it could be an interesting way to explore a greater use of content. Eventually, you could sort of see the Internet version of a 24 hour news channel on your desktop.
Whether it’s multimedia content, or just plain old text, the power of RSS as an information delivery tool is undeniable. As Americans continue to shut out advertising, marketers need to come up with new ways to get their message across. Content delivery via RSS may be a good answer. What blogging brought to the surface is the fact that people have seen a lot of the packaged information that marketers put out; what they’re interested in seeing is what’s going on in the trenches, explains NetHawk’s Mendez. RSS gives companies a direct line to the consumer. With that power, however, comes the challenge of providing the kind of information consumers want. Because with RSS, it’s easier than ever before for consumers to opt out. If it all falls into place, however, RSS could truly be the Internet’s next Really Significant Shift.