RSS for Online Marketing

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2401, 2006-01-06, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 18-19) and their website.

Anyone involved in the marketing of a business on the Internet has probably heard of RSS, but may not be utilizing it — perhaps as a result of already being swamped with other online marketing efforts, such as search engine optimization (SEO), or simply from unfamiliarity with the technology. But this would be a shame, because RSS has tremendous potential for marketing your organization on the Internet, and it's not that difficult to get started.

There is some disagreement as to what the acronym RSS stands for; candidates include "Really Simple Syndication" and "Rich Site Summary". But there is no disagreement as to what it is, namely, an XML format for syndicating Web content. XML (Extensible Markup Language) is a way to structure text using embedded tags.

The individual news items intended to be distributed from a website, are organized into a single RSS file, known as an "RSS feed". Such files typically have the file extension ".xml", since an RSS file is a type of XML file. The news items are then picked up by individual Internet users, through whatever RSS applications they have chosen for reading the RSS feeds from your site and any others to which they have subscribed. These applications are known as RSS "aggregators", since they aggregate multiple feeds into one single news display.

Do not let this technical alphabet soup confuse you, because from a marketing perspective, all that you need to understand at this point is that RSS is a method for formatting your company's news in a text file, so that it can be automatically picked up by anyone on the Internet who has subscribed to your RSS feed.

Really Simple Marketing

What is it about RSS that distinguishes it from other methods by which Internet users can view information, especially in terms of publicity? After all, can't Internet users visit your company's Web pages whenever they are interested in learning more about the organization or its latest products and services? Yes, they certainly can, but the critical question is, will they? They are already busy enough as it is. What percentage of qualified people would remember to check your company's website periodically?

In fact, that problem gets to the heart of why most RSS users are such strong supporters of the technology: They don't have to remember to check the websites of every organization in which they are interested. They merely subscribe to each organization's RSS feed once, and never again have to worry about missing an important announcement from that organization. They can also set up filters within their RSS applications, to better focus on the topics that most interest them.

By making your company's news available to all RSS users (in addition to presumably posting that news on your Web pages), you are reaching an ever-growing group of people who have opted in to receiving your message. This voluntary aspect of RSS marketing greatly increases the odds that the recipients of your announcements will be interested in reading them, and possibly acting upon them in the marketplace. Thus conversion rates will likely be higher for your RSS group than for people who receive e-mail solicitations or who may have found your website from a search engine or other link source.

Another advantage to marketing via RSS — particularly if your company sells technological products or services — is that your readership will be far more tech-savvy than the overall set of Internet users who might hear your message via e-mail or your website. The technical crowd tends to value, appreciate, and in turn patronize businesses that respect their intelligence, and make an effort to accommodate their interests and needs, as well as following Web best practices. (Another technical decision, but one that has the opposite effect, is designing a website that can only be used by Internet Explorer, which can anger the increasing number of people choosing Firefox, Safari, and other Web browsers.)

Lastly, Internet users are becoming more sophisticated in how they control the information that reaches them, such as using filters and spam blockers for reducing unwanted e-mail messages, and using pop-up blockers and ad filters for avoiding unwanted advertising when surfing the Web. By making the effort to announce your organization's ongoing news in the form of an RSS feed, you avoid the technical difficulties and well-deserved stigma associated with spam and pop-up ads, as you deliver your message to people who have already indicated an interest in hearing your news.

Not So Simple Setup

While understanding some of the advantages to RSS may be easy, creating an RSS feed is more involved, and could prove overwhelming for any reader not comfortable with editing files containing markup language, or using computer programs beyond the simplest applications. In those cases, it would be best to have your company's technical staff develop an RSS feed, if they have not already done so. For those who would like to do it themselves, there are essentially two approaches one could take: using an RSS feed application, or creating the RSS file manually.

There are many RSS feed applications available, varying in their sophistication and cost. If your needs would be served by an RSS feed consisting of news available from existing feeds on the Internet, then a tool such as RSS Aggregator could be sufficient, as it allows you to specify what other feeds to use, and combine them into your own feed, without any knowledge of XML.

But this solution won't work if you want to include news not available in any other RSS feed, such as if you are responsible for publishing your own company's news. In that case, the easiest solution would be to use an application that can scan your website's contents and automatically generate an RSS file; an example of this is Tristana Writer.

While these RSS applications are powerful and can save you time, they do insulate you from learning more about the format of an RSS file. If you'd like to create such a file yourself, then you can do so, but the text file that you create must conform with the formatting rules of RSS, which are beyond the scope of this article. But if you would like to learn more, one place to start is http://www.webreference.com/authoring/languages/xml/rss/.

It is becoming increasingly clear to business people everywhere that RSS is more than just a trendy new adjunct to their existing website. Rather, it can be leveraged to deliver your organization's marketing messages in a targeted fashion to recipients who might otherwise filter out those messages, or never even hear them in the first place, because there just aren't enough hours in the day to frequently check your website for updates.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.