Outlook 2006: A Rosy Future for RSS

Really Simple Syndication is swiftly becoming mainstream, while just a year ago it was the province of the tech savvy.

RSS provides a versatile, structured format to rapidly aggregate, distribute and manage information. For example, RSS provides the infrastructure to distribute information on audio (podcasts) and video (vblogs) programs. As new applications develop, RSS will become increasingly invisible to the user, and discussions on its adoption rate will focus on the size of the market of users rather than on the proliferation.

Stats Undercount Users

Confusing and conflicting statistics appeared almost daily last year detailing the proliferation of RSS. A Forrester Research study said that just 2 percent of online U.S. households use RSS, while JupiterResearch and Pew reported adoption rates around 12 percent and 9 percent, respectively. A study from Yahoo and Ipsos Insight found that 31 percent of online users use RSS, but most of them are unaware of its nomenclature. This is because they use it as part of other services such as My Yahoo and My MSN, where it is not necessary to understand RSS technology to use it.

The discrepancy in reports of adoption may result from how questions were worded in the different surveys. The Yahoo estimates probably offer the most complete picture available at this time because they square with the massive growth rates in RSS traffic reported by some content providers.

No longer will users need to learn the arcana of RSS when Microsoft introduces its next edition of Internet Explorer, already named Vista and scheduled for release later this year. If the planned integration and release occur as promised, subscribing to RSS feeds will become as easy and accepted as bookmarks are today.

RSS is device agnostic. In the future, users will employ it seamlessly on multiple devices. It’s already possible to receive RSS feeds on mobile devices like cell phones and PDAs as well as through instant messaging. With Internet users becoming accustomed to receiving and managing information as RSS feeds on their computers, they will want and expect to be able to receive them on their mobile devices. This will create opportunities for those who develop marketing, entertainment and work productivity applications for mobile devices.

Double-Edged Sword

As more Web users turn to RSS readers on multiple devices, sites providing content will see the readership of their feeds grow. The pervasive use of RSS readers, however, may cannibalize the advertising circulation of some sites. The shift from reading content on the site to reading it in a feed will mirror what has occurred in print newspapers, where readers are turning to online sources in such numbers that newspapers report circulation declines.

Because RSS and Web sites are both online, the circulation shifts will be subtler. But the shifts are likely. It will be important to monitor the effect of feeds on circulation. Nevertheless, there is a countervailing force. RSS aggregators/readers present a steady diet of new information in a readily digestible form, so we can expect RSS to let users increase their overall consumption of information. For marketers, this shift in consumer behavior will increase opportunities to present their messages. However, because users can unsubscribe with a single click, marketers will have to provide value to sustain readership. The challenge will be to determine how to create and deliver a message the consumer really wants.

The arguments are compelling for the monetization of content through advertising in RSS feeds. For many content providers, monetization is essential to their business model. For the advertiser, RSS feeds offer highly targeted audiences. However, marketers trying RSS advertising will need to monitor user behavior, for this will temper how the medium develops. Too many ads in the feed may repel readers. Once a reader subscribes to a feed, the reader no longer is compelled to visit the site to read its content. To drive the reader to the site, many content providers offer only a portion of the content in the feed. Here is a caution. Content presented in a partial feed must be compelling enough for the reader to want to read the full text. Unless this challenge is met, content providers can expect a reduction in clickthroughs and of the views of any advertising appearing on the site itself.

E-Mail Complements, Not Supplements

We can expect more targeted and personalized RSS feeds. These feeds are just starting to become available, and they will give users and advertisers greater control over their information in the future. However, marketers placing ads in these feeds must combine carefully selected targets and relevant ad content to drive response.

Marketers expect to measure the performance of their ad spending, and RSS is no exception. RSS performance measurement is evolving. Current metrics are similar to e-mail, but the performance of RSS feeds differs. We should see growth in our understanding of how to measure performance and in the tools for measuring marketing performance of both RSS feeds and any ads carried in them. Though RSS was once hailed as the solution to sidestep spam, one thing is certain: It won’t replace e-mail in the near term. E-mail is entrenched as a primary Web activity. RSS presents another medium for marketers to communicate with their audiences.

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