The numbers around RSS haven't been adding up properly for the past year. As we interview marketers across the US for MarketingSherpa Case Studies, we always ask "Do you have an RSS feed and how's that working?"
Those that say "yes" inevitably then say they have not promoted RSS much, if at all, because it's really just a trial balloon. And they have way too much to cope with, what with search and email marketing as well as upgrading landing pages, to worry about RSS feeds too. RSS is supposed to be tiny compared to other Web activities -- early days yet -- so why put too much energy into it?
But then all the marketers say, "You know, despite the fact that we don't promote this feed at all, it's taken off like crazy!"
For example the email team at USAToday.com told us last fall that incoming traffic from their "barely promoted" RSS feed was rising month after month by orders of magnitude.
The success isn't just limited to news sites. Ethan Holland, eCommerce Director for W. Atlee Burpee & Co (the garden seed people) launched a trial RSS feed featuring "seed of the day" last year. Now, he says, "It's a steep curve of increasing sales. We had four times as many sales as we normally would have had in November."
Thing is, November normally is the worst seed-selling season online. "Wow! People actually buying in November -- that's fantastic!"The data: why are RSS numbers so far from RSS perceived reality?
If you bring up RSS at a dinner party, most people won't have any idea what you're talking about -- even if they use it. As Holland explains, his mom isn't sure what RSS is, but she eagerly subscribes to a news feed to track health-related topics.
Holland's mom isn't alone. According to two separate studies (we've posted charts from both for you at the link below), although 75 million Web users in the USA and UK use RSS routinely, about 50 million of them have no idea what RSS is.
In fact, when these regular users see the orange RSS button on your site, they probably bypass it as so much tech gibberish.
Who are they and what are they using instead of your button? They're the folks who use MyYahoo or MyMSN as their RSS readers. Most think the service is related to the news search, and if anything, they're pleased to be able to customize their incoming news a bit.
Given that USAToday is one of the chosen feeds for MyYahoo, it's no wonder the newspaper's getting such a huge traffic spike from RSS.
A Nielsen//NetRatings study shows this demographic are not like prior RSS-fans. The first group, who we call orange-button-early-adopters, were more like Burpee's Holland: the techies and cutting edge Web gurus. They were interested in the gizmo factor more than anything else. But these are not people who tend to buy garden seeds or read 'USAToday' avidly. These are not Holland's mom.
The new, now much-larger group, whom we call the news-junkies, are exactly that: more typical consumers with an avid interest in news content. Perhaps they're interested in general news; the kind of consumers who in the past would have skimmed the morning paper every day. Or perhaps they have such a deep interest in one particular super-niche topic that they want to know when anything at all appears about it online.
No matter which, it's the newsiness of the content that makes RSS compelling to them, not the whiz-bang coolness of RSS itself. How to get your feed picked up by the non-RSS-button users
While your orange button may work wonders for the RSS-fan-crowd, it's still a limited universe. If you really want attention you need to get your feed to show up where the news-junky crowd will trip over it.
First of all, try copying Travelocity's launch campaign for their RSS feed, which took off October 24, 2005.
Instead of issuing a press release or running a big ad campaign the team merely sent a single email offer to the members of its house list who were either Yahoo or MSN email users, asking them to sign up for the feed via MyYahoo or MyMSN respectively.
"Of the people that opened the email, over two-thirds actually subscribed to the feed," says Patty Hagar, Travelocity's Principal Account Manager, Strategic Marketing. "That's an enormous clickthrough rate -- enormous! They were really hungry for this information."
Beyond alerting your own users who already are on Yahoo or MSN, you also need to get your feed to show up where consumers will trip over it as they surf those sites. Both Yahoo and MSN do publish info pages for publishers who want their feed picked up (see link below).
You'll need to publish your feed fairly frequently (perhaps daily) and have content that could be said to be newsy (perhaps newsletter articles, factoid-of-the-day, or offer of the day).
In addition, work to get your feed included as part of one of the ever-increasing numbers of aggregated feeds. These are RSS feeds that are themselves clumped together feeds from several sources. An example, the National Library of Medicine offers a free personalized RSS newsfeed from its PubMed database (info link below).
A growing number of bloggers are now offering their own aggregated feeds where you can sign up to see what the blogger is reading. Worrisome data on RSS and your brand
First of all, 45% of surveyed RSS users say they "do not approve of ads in RSS." The other 55% may not be thrilled by ads, but they understand it's the price of getting handy free headlines served up conveniently in their reader.
A few ad networks are starting to offer ads inserted into RSS feeds. We haven't seen one that's gained critical mass yet, reaching millions of RSS users, but we predict that situation will change by the end of this year.
If you are testing an ad, consider something newsy to fit into the RSS mindset. Also, instead of running the same creative repeatedly, consider running a series of news items (or breaking your news into a series of items) instead. Example: Burpee's seed of the day feed.
Whether it's an ad or an entire feed, be sure to include your brand name within the headline of every feed. Why? Because according to Nielsen//NetRatings, although consumers using RSS wind up getting more news from a wider variety of sites than they had before, many attach the brand value of the content to the feed or reader itself, rather than the original source of the news.
In other words, the RSS feed or reader becomes the primary brand while various publishers providing the mix of headlines contained within it see a reduction in brand value. They love their reader more than they love the particular brands within it.
By including your brand automatically as part of every headline, you increase your visibility, fighting the trend toward being just another feed in the reader.
Hmm, seems like we used to give identical advice to marketers launching email newsletters to brand their subject lines. How ever much the world turns, it winds up back in the same place. Useful links related to this article:
RSS study charts and data from Neilsen//NetRatings & Yahoo!/Ipsos Reid http://www.marketingsherpa.com/cs/rsscharts/study.html
How to get your RSS feed included at MyYahoo: http://publisher.yahoo.com/rss_guide/
E-site Marketing - the company Travelocity uses to power their RSS offering: http://www.esitemarketing.com
Info about the National Library of Medicine's PubMed RSS Feed http://www.scripting.com/2006/02/14.html#When:9:35:50PM
Burpee's RSS offer page -- scroll to the bottom of the home page and click on the info link http://www.burpee.com
Travelocity's RSS preferences center http://rss.travelocity.com
MarketingSherpa's more info about RSS page (includes link to our feed) http://www.marketingsherpa.com/article.php?ident=27189