RSS: What it is, how to use it

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RSS, or really simple syndication, is a widely used content feed available on many Web sites. Many marketers are still in the dark about RSS, so DM News associate editor Giselle Abramovich interviewed Andrew Barnett, manager of organic search at Outrider, a St. Louis agency.

GA: What exactly is an RSS feed?

AB: It is a structured data format for delivering regularly changing Web content. Web publishers leverage RSS to provide updates such as the latest blog postings, news headlines or even classified ads. Consumers use RSS aggregators, either standalone applications or one of a growing number of online services, to collect, read and monitor their favorite content all in one place.

GA: How can it be used in marketing?

AB: To begin, it is an increasingly viable ad medium, letting companies target a very specific (and influential) audience. Major players in the ad side of RSS include Feedburner, Pheedo, Google and Yahoo.

For publishers - and that includes any company that generates regularly updated content - RSS is a tantalizing distribution channel. There is a seemingly endless list of potential uses beyond syndicating the latest headlines. These include syndicating online coupons, product feeds containing special offers, the distribution of press releases, notifications (for instance, real estate agents could provide new listings) and branded content.

GA: What are its benefits to marketers?

AB: RSS allows for instant distribution of content updates to people who have already expressed interest in them. It allows companies to forge additional connections to their subscribers, driving additional traffic to their sites.

Because of the inherent control of the subscribers - RSS is a spam-free, opt-in channel - RSS lets publishers, including online retailers, connect with customers, presenting them with the right offer when they are ready to buy. In addition, if properly executed through dynamically generated feeds, RSS allows retailers to segment customers in ways that exceed the targeting capabilities currently offered via e-mail.

Lastly, if properly executed, there is a secondary benefit: search engine optimization. If your RSS feed contains compelling content and is displayed on a third-party site, search engines will see inbound links to your site, providing a small but important boost to your search engine visibility.

GA: What are its benefits to consumers, or anyone who downloads an RSS feed?

AB: They allow users to quickly review many sites in a short time by highlighting updated content. And unlike e-mail, there is no spam. Like TiVo, the underlying appeal for consumers is simple: control. Control of their inboxes and their time.

GA: Any disadvantages?

AB: User adoption is still relegated to a small segment of the online population. Because of its nascent state, no dominant RSS reader has emerged. Unlike e-mail where there are a few major e-mail providers, there are hundreds of readers with small market share. Again, unlike e-mail, RSS is 100 percent opt-in. It will take considerable time to build a subscriber base.

GA: What advice would you give to a company whose site is implementing an RSS feed?

AB: Give consumers what they want. Provide them with adequately segmented feeds to ensure that they receive content they expect. In the RSS equation, the consumers have the control, and the power to opt out of this relationship. n

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