February 19, 2004
How To

How Big Companies are Testing RSS Feeds to Circumvent Email: RSS 101 + Useful Links

SUMMARY: Walt Disney, Yahoo, Macromedia, and Amazon (along with at least 50,000 bloggers) are testing RSS feeds to send news directly to people's computers -- without going through email.

The good news is you don't have to worry about email filters, legal headaches, or standing out in a crowded in-box. The bad news is, RSS feeds are hard to track from a marketing standpoint.

MarketingSherpa Editor Janet Roberts has pulled together this handy summary of RSS info for you. We hope you find it useful.
By MarketingSherpa Editor Janet Roberts

Getting the wrinkles ironed out of your email program? Figured out a CAN-SPAM compliance program? Don't rest on your laurels. You might be facing a defection of customers who want to bypass email for a spam--free format called RSS.

RSS -- shorthand for either Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication -- isn't new. Technogeeks have been using it to keep up with each other's Blogs and other Web publishing efforts for years. MarketingSherpa estimates perhaps a quarter of a million users around the world have downloaded the reader software they need to get headlines and news via RSS feeds (links below.)

Okay, that's not a lot compared to the total email users population. But, these are active information-seekers, not passive email readers. And, their numbers will grow rapidly as RSS becomes more user friendly and as more people get fed up with spam and irrelevant email.

RSS is about to hit the mainstream. In fact, companies such as Amazon, Walt Disney, and Macromedia are already testing RSS to distribute news and info to customers and business partners.

Quick backgrounder - What's RSS

"Will RSS kill email?" That was the big question six months ago, when the online airwaves were full of talk that spam, filters and regulations had killed email, the "killer app."

Thought leaders said email would be replaced by RSS, which promises a spam-free, filter-free, CAN-SPAM-free way to communicate with readers.

Today, it seems pretty clear that about the only thing you can't do right now with RSS is make money from it, although that could change soon, too. Although momentum is building for RSS, some challenges are holding it back from becoming the next killer app:

-- You need a desktop device called a "news aggregator" or "news reader" to translate RSS code into a readable format. Some see this as RSS' biggest drawback given the average user's aversion to downloading and installing software. (People used to say that about email, too.)

-- RSS doesn't have any of the standard metrics, such as subscribes, unsubscribes, clicks, buys or forwards to measure results, so it's a tough sell to the CEO.

-- You can create highly targeted feeds with RSS, but you can't personalize an individual delivery the way you can in email with names, purchase history or click interests.

-- Some people who adopt RSS as their main information source do it to get away from unwanted email, including marketing messages. Using an RSS feed to send people information they don't want will backfire.

-- Your feed might look different in different news readers, same as in the early days of email when some programs rendered HTML images in different ways.

You won't want to abandon email, especially if you have invested time and money to build a solid-gold house list. But, adding an RSS channel to your marketing program could give you one more way to reach your most motivated customers.

How Companies Use RSS Now
Webloggers were among the first to use RSS to keep up with their fellow bloggers and to "syndicate" their content to other sites.

Then, email publishers picked it up as a medium to send content formerly packaged as email newsletters. RSS is the ultimate opt-in channel, because readers will see your feed only if they add it to their news readers.

Now, big companies are starting to use RSS in two ways: to improve in-house communications and to send out marketing and public-relations information previously relegated to email newsletters and news releases.

The Walt Disney Internet Group outlined its RSS strategies for both in-house (intranet) communications and its media properties, including ABCNews and ESPN, at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference earlier this month. Among their conclusions:

"RSS feeds and Weblog software are useful for (a) multitude of business (needs) where information flow is critical." Using RSS feeds is inexpensive compared to other software options, but news readers should be integrated in email clients such as Outlook in order to get more users to adopt the technology.

Ready for the RSS Bandwagon?

Just as email needed only a couple of user-friendly applications to turn it into a weapon of mass communication, RSS is poised for a big breakthrough:

-- Users have more than 40 news readers to choose from, from full-functions such as NewsGator, which integrates with the Outlook email client, to free Web-based version such as Bloglines and Yahoo!'s reader, still in beta test but free to Yahoo! registered users. (See resource list below.)

-- EmailLabs, an email-marketing and list-hosting company, will add RSS to the text, HTML and AOL formats its clients use to publish newsletters beginning in June, CEO David Sousa said.

Other e-marketing software designers also are incorporating programs to make it easier to publish information in RSS, such as iUpload's free MailByRSS service.

-- Codewriters are testing ways to track how many people are reading which feeds with unique URLs, among other things.

-- RSSAds.com just launched a new ad network to place ads in news feeds.

Want to see for yourself? Get a news reader and start reading some feeds. Then, talk to your webmaster to see what he or she knows about RSS and implementing it.

Check the resource list below to find a news reader. The best ones cost between $10 and $39, but you can get a free one if you just want to try it out.

You need a news reader, because RSS feeds are formatted in different computer languages, such as XML (Extensible Markup Language) instead of HTML, which Web sites and ezines use.

If you try to read an RSS feed without a news reader, you'll get just a page full of code (Link below to screenshots of RSS feeds with and without a reader.)

Once you install your news reader, you need something to read. See the resource list for some suggested feeds. Or, visit a few Web sites and look for the orange XML button or a blue RSS one. Most news readers just have you copy a feed's URL into a subscribe blank in order to add it to your list.

When you open your news reader, you'll see your news feeds in one panel and the feed's headline and summary in another. You should be able to click a link to read the full story at the site.

What RSS Can Do For Your Company

The person who runs your company's intranet will probably benefit sooner from RSS than you will. More companies use RSS to manage internal communications and keep remote employees such as salespeople and field-office personnel in the loop without drowning in irrelevant information.

Technology companies such as Macromedia, maker of Shockwave, Flash and Dreamweaver programs for Web programming, use RSS feeds to pass on software beta versions and product updates and changes.

To see major content specialization, visit Amazon.com and its more than 200 news feeds, delivering specific information whether you want romance novels, action-adventure DVDs or a computer monitor.

Ask yourself two questions as you weigh an investment in RSS:

-- Is my company ready for this?

Does your in-house or Web-services vendor know the different computer languages RSS uses? Who will format the content? Who decides what to use? RSS can also consume lots of bandwidth. Can your Web host handle a big demand?

-- Are my clients or customers ready for this?

Dana VandenHeuvel, new media director for Web-services company Balance Studios, saw many potential uses for RSS feeds over email deliveries at his former employer, a major contract-furniture manufacturer.

It didn't happen, because customers weren't ready for it, and his company didn't see the ROI.

"People in that industry were not e-savvy," VandenHeuvel said. "It would be falling on deaf ears as to what our user base would glean from it, because they didn't understand the value of the technology."

Useful links related to this article:

A selection of top news readers (there are many more):
-- NewsGator, desktop reader and Web service (paid):

-- Bloglines (Web-based, free):

-- NetNewsWire (Mac OSX, paid):

Some of the best RSS info links (there are many more):

-- Lockergnome.com's RSS Resources site:

-- 2RSS Directory:

-- Amazon.com News Feed Directory:

-- MailByRSS (free):

-- RSSAds.com:

Last but not least, here's the URL to start getting MarketingSherpa's RSS Feed (cut and paste into your RSS reader)

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