Burpee, Marriott Develop Casual Communications With Customers

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For those still harboring a seed of doubt on RSS' efficacy, The Burpee Company and Marriott International Inc. are proof that the channel has applications for building brand, community and loyalty.

Both marketers are customers of FeedBurner Inc., the leading feed manager online with 11 million subscribers using its platform to receive content, images and reviews. RSS' advantages are clear to a 130-year-old retailer and cataloger of seeds and plants like Burpee.

"It's allowed Burpee to communicate with customers on a more regular basis than e-mail," said Brent Hill, vice president of business development at FeedBurner, Chicago.

Burpee started using RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, almost two years ago. Ethan Holland, director of e-commerce, was a personal user of RSS. He thought its introduction would bring value to Burpee.

"Burpee has 1,000 photos of products a year we sell," Mr. Holland said. "To share these by e-mail would be very difficult. Also, the universe of e-mail is very structured: need to keep file size to a minimum, maintain a distribution list and be very careful about what you write in order to bypass spam filters.

"Feeds, however, provide an opt-in, direct line of communication with customers who can decide when and how they read your content," he said. "Burpee thought RSS would be a way to go back to the Internet - old-style, where we're simply sharing something we're enthusiastic about."

Furthermore, RSS has no frequency requirement like a weekly e-mail. Burpee doesn't have to worry about giving too many feeds because it's not competing with other content in the e-mail. In short, it's a more casual environment to deliver information.

Readership Grows Like Weeds

Burpee's RSS feed readership has doubled every two to three months, the company claims.

In January, Burpee added Bazaarvoice, a hosted product review firm, to enable reviews of products Burpee is selling. Since the company couldn't place all its review content on the home page at www.burpee.com, Burpee in February began placing the review content in the feeds as well. In addition, Burpee started placing related news items and featured Burpee-sponsored garden events.

"Using the FeedBurner platform has made it easy for customers to subscribe to this new content, helping Burpee create a community," Mr. Holland said. "We've also added in a blog."

As for benchmarks, one is increased revenue, which Burpee claims without disclosing numbers. Then there is RSS' application as a branding tool to connect daily with customers and feed recipients.

"That's a big deal, that customers have asked to be contacted daily," he said.

New Level of Interactivity

Sales of seeds are highly seasonal. February through May are peak seasons. Yet Burpee now can talk to consumers all year, extending a four-month cycle to 12 months. Viewers are invited to write a review, e-mail the post or tag it using a social bookmarking service directly through the Burpee feed. This is a new level of interactivity it can pass on to its customers through the feeds.

Also, Burpee can include an e-mail as a blog post in its RSS feed. So it is complementary, not competitive, to e-mail. However, neither is segmented at the moment. The transition from broadcast style to segment will occur in the next season.

"Today, syndicated online content can be mashed up or mixed up," Mr. Holland said. "This is a benefit to those wishing to extend their reach online. It can also be a challenge to keep track of it all.

"By using FeedBurner feeds," he said, "Burpee is able to overcome this potential challenge by being able to see where its content is going, determine what posts are most popular and make business decisions that lead to increased profit and new opportunities to connect with customers."

What of the cost?

"By distributing its content, photos and product reviews via feeds, we estimate we're saving $2,000 to $4,000 a day as opposed to the amount of money we'd have to spend on the same content if it were on our Web site, that is, real estate on the Web site savings," he said.

Historical data tracked through FeedBurner show that Burpee products with an accompanying review get a 47 percent higher click through than products without reviews.

"The conversion of these reviewed products into sales are averaging 2.5 percent - can spike to 4.5 percent - and well over the industry average," Mr. Holland said. "Burpee has identified a very cost-effective approach to delivering its message."

Still, Burpee executives understand that RSS is a complement to e-mail and not a replacement.

"It's not used the same as e-mail," he said. "E-mail drives more revenue because it's used to sell specific products, whereas via RSS we're showing pictures - one picture and a review. So it's more of branding and community building with customers rather than a sales tool."

Marriott Gets Its Feet Wet

For its part, Marriott offers RSS feeds for several reasons, said Jhorna Ramanlal, New York-based e-commerce marketing manager at Marriott.

First, the hotel chain wants to become more familiar with the technology and develop best practices so that it's better prepared when RSS rises in popularity with its customer base.

Second, the company is addressing a growing need for customers when and how they want it. Third, it wants to confirm that RSS is an appropriate channel to communicate with its audience. Finally, like many companies, it wants to gauge the revenue potential of this communication channel.

Marriott created an RSS feed to deliver last-minute weekend offers to customers. Called eBreaks, this program delivers to subscribers weekend deals that would save them at least 20 percent on Marriott hotels in the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Before the launch of the RSS program via FeedBurner, these last-minute offers were distributed only through e-mail. The option of e-mail or RSS lies with the subscriber.

"Our current RSS feed is not intended to take the place of other marketing communication channels," Ms. Ramanlal said, "but is intended to serve as an additional channel for customers who prefer to receive information via RSS. We're currently exploring ways to expand the current program beyond delivering eBreaks content."

The most active subscribers to the hotel chain's RSS feeds are members of its Marriott Rewards loyalty program. But that was expected. RSS lets Marriott connect with customers who are most engaged with its brand online through their preferred medium.

"This creates a great customer experience and helps drive more bookings via Marriott.com," Ms. Ramanlal said.

The program has helped Marriott better understand whether its customers are interested in receiving promotional messages via RSS, and provided an alternative means with which to communicate with them, she said.

"The pilot period for our RSS program was February through June," she said. "However, we've extended this program through the end of the year due to the positive results we're seeing from a customer adoption and revenue standpoint." n

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