May 13, 2005
How To

RSS in Reality: Not a Replacement for Email - -Metrics & Best Practices

SUMMARY: It chills our blood when we hear email marketers and publishers blithely state, \"I'm thinking about switching over to RSS entirely!\" Oh no. Please don't. RSS is worthy of testing, but it's not an email replacement and it never will be. Here's why, plus some metrics and best practices guidelines.
RSS continues to get buzz, with offerings increasingly showing up on thousands of blogs as well as hundreds of Web sites. (Not sure what an RSS is? See the link at the bottom of this article.)

Given RSS's increasing popularity among online publishers, bloggers, and marketers, there's a lot of buzz on its potential to reach millions of interested consumers directly through opt-in feeds to consumers' RSS readers of choice.

However, "potential" is the key word.

RSS lacks hard numbers of almost any kind, making it impossible to base a business case for relying on it as a publishing or marketing tool ... at this time.

And yet otherwise sensible marketers and publishers are talking about replacing email with RSS offerings (asking readers to choose format that they'd like to get info in)and hundreds of bloggers have chosen to *only* offer RSS feeds instead of an accompanying email alert.

RSS versus email -- the great nondebate

Most publishers use RSS to send a headline, short summary, and click link to their latest Web posting. Consumers "opt-in" by adding the unique feed URL (usually marked with an orange RSS button) to the list of feeds they'd like their reader to scrape and present to them. Then whenever the consumer opens their RSS reader, the latest headlines from all the feeds they've signed up for appear in the reader. They can scan the headlines and decide which items they want to click to learn more about.

Sounds fairly similar to email doesn't it?

Which is why we suspect so many publishers, marketers, and bloggers are leaping on the RSS bandwagon. RSS seems to be safe, friendly, and familiar, why not go for it? Plus, it's not yet riddled with email's two biggest headaches -- spam and spam filters. (We strongly suspect someday this will change, but for now RSS is an innocent playground.)

However, RSS is not email -- nor is it an email replacement. It's a different media channel. And, just as every media channel does, creatively RSS has its own unique challenges, drawbacks, and problems.

How small is RSS usership? No one's sure

91% of US Internet users use email on a regular basis.

Roughly 4% use RSS feeds on any sort of basis at all. (We say roughly because no one, including Pew, have currently been able to come out with data on RSS feed recipients that's collected and reported in a way that satisfies statisticians. This will probably change soon, but we don't expect that % to grow to two digits anytime soon.)

A highly reported survey said 73% of readers will increase their use of RSS feeds in the next year. However, these were results from only 230 respondents, most of whom were in the early adopter category of the US population. It wasn't a sample of the Internet population as a whole.

(In the meantime, according to RSS aggregator, they're tracking more than 400,000 live feeds. Too many feeds chasing too few readers???)

For those 4% of the population using RSS, what's their feed use like?

One typical RSS reader vendor reports customers sign up for 70 to 80 feeds each, use their RSS readers about 15 minutes a day, and don't necessarily check their feeds daily.

(Makes us wonder how that typical customer can wade through 70-80 or more feeds in their in-box in just 15 minutes per day. We suspect your feed headline has to be exceptionally well copywritten to catch the eye in that overloaded box.)

All of this hardly adds up to a picture of an RSS customer. How many clients read their feeds after they sign up? How many feeds do they subscribe to and then drop? What's the length they subscribe to an average feed?

These kinds of unanswered questions make it very difficult to base a business case around RSS advertising.

RSS's biggest challenge of all -- tracking and measurement

Currently most marketers, bloggers, and publishers don't track anything about their feed whatsoever. They stick it up there, and that's it.

A few track how many clicks the links sent through RSS get. Another few (often a separate group) track how many site visitors click on the RSS button to start getting the feed. Practically no one tracks anything else... and there's zero sophisticated tracking we know of at all.

No deliverability, open rates, hard vs. soft bounces. No A/B tests, no usability tests, no offer tests, no recency/frequency tests, and multivariable testing is not even on the map. The kind of data that marketers and publishers rely on to make business, content, and marketing decisions for email campaigns is almost entirely lacking for RSS at this time.

One online publisher tried to track her RSS audience's activities by sending out a new article alert only over her RSS feeds (and not to her email list) and then tracking the number of site visitors that alert received. That publisher believes the article alert received a 40%-50% open rate from those RSS readers. But she can't be sure because the search engines also picked up that link so some traffic might have come from them, too.

Another publisher used ClickThruStats to track article links they placed into RSS feeds. Depending on how appealing the publisher's article titles were phrased, RSS headlines attracted anywhere from one or two clicks to 25. Unfortunately that publisher didn't know how many people had signed up for the RSS feed or what the RSS feed attrition was, and without being able to count your base audience, you can't tell how great your clickthrough percent is.

Many publishers use FeedBurner counters to watch the number of visits through their RSS feeds, but again since they don't know the total population of sign-ups per feed. The numbers are interesting, but not terribly useful.

What can you track beyond clicks?

Some vendors are attempting to track RSS metrics. Nothing's consistent yet between offerings, and often vendors use the same words such as "open" to describe very different activities. So it's confusing.

From what we've been able to discern, various vendors can track:

-- Number of feeds picked up. -- Data on the person who picked up the feed if a registration form was required (extremely rare circumstance). -- Data on the overall general type of readers used to view feeds, but not specific readers. -- Data on which of your viewers clicked on which link, if you code links individually by recipient (few publishers do). -- Data on clicks from RSS versus clicks from other sources to the same posted Web content by putting special tracking in the RSS link. -- Standard Web analytics data (time spent, pageviews, conversions, etc) from the page any clicks land on in your site.

IMN Inc, an email service provider also offering trackable RSS feeds, also measures most and least active RSS users. The metrics consist of:

a. Last request date and time for a feed; b. Total number of times a feed was requested; c. Average number of time elapsed between feed requests. d. Unique clicks per item sent out in feed.

We asked them for aggregate data across their various publishers using their system to send out feeds. Unfortunately, although IMN Inc has lots of clients, not enough have bothered to enable the tracking part of their account to give anyone data worth talking about. Frustrating but true.

A quick Case Study on marketing with RSS feeds

VMware Inc. sells virtualization software to a wide range of clients, from architects to IT professionals, with products ranging from $189 to more than $2,500. They decided to test RSS because they serve a technical audience -- prototypical technology "early adopter" types who'd be more likely to get excited by the offering.

Brian Bohlig, Corporate Marketing Director, hoped to get some data from a late fall 2004 test to determine if he should roll out an RSS offer aggressively in 2005. "If it can't be measured, it's really tough to get a budget for it, " he says. The project used five steps:

Step #1. Creating an offer landing page

Bohlig had his Web team create a landing page for RSS where viewers could choose the feed they wanted. This is a best practice: instead of forcing someone to take your entire feed, they can state preferences up-front.

"From a marketing perspective, that's great if you know exactly what they want," Bohlig says. "That's what you give them and you don't waste time sending tech info to a C-level person who doesn't want it, or a press release when all they want is tech info."

Step #2. Offering the feed

Bohlig decided on a soft-launch -- quietly promoting the feed with a brief mention at the end of a long email newsletter and with a standard home page button. He also posted an announcement to VMware's community Web message boards.

Step #3. Publishing short "bits" of content over the feed

Next Bohlig's team began to send content through the feed. However, it was not the same exact content as their email newsletters or white papers or Web stuff. The topic might be the same, but RSS demands a "small bit" format. You can't send long, involved content.

"It's almost a news flash, " Bohlig says. "It needs to be more condensed, more timely." (See link to Creative samples below to view Bohlig's feed headers over a few weeks.)

Results: Thousands of VMware clients and prospects signed up -- far more than Bohlig had expected given the limited amount of promotion he put behind the effort. He suspects that his specific demographic were far more likely to be interested than the typical consumer would be.

Recipients click all the way through on VMware feeds at least twice a month. Bohlig was sending more frequently than that, often once a business day. So the typical recipient is opening and clicking on perhaps two out of every 22 headlines he sends out. It's not a stunning rate compared to email.

On the other hand, because Bohlig's team copywrites their newsy RSS headlines carefully, the nonclicking recipients may still be reading and getting value from the feed itself even though they don't click through. That's the nature of news headlines in any medium. (How often have you glanced at a newspaper headline but not read the story below?)

MarketingSherpa conclusions

Test RSS certainly. It may prove a winner for your niche. But only promote it to your visitors and prospects if you intend to watch metrics.

Just as we warned marketers five years ago that they should not "shovel" their brochure content onto their Web sites, you shouldn't treat RSS as shovelware for email content. This is a new medium.

Useful links related to this article

#1. Creative samples, best practices white papers, glossary and more useful factoids about RSS:

#2. Some typical vendors related to RSS:

An RSS reader (one of hundreds):

An RSS search engine:

An RSS syndicator:

#3. Best comprehensive report on RSS (A bit too long/wordy and very little info on metrics, but still the best that's out there):

#4. Some of the sources we used for this story:



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