To Roll Out RSS, Think Like A Newsletter, Not A Newspaper

Today, Online Publishing Insider moves from Monday to its new slot, Thursday.

Seth Godin is one of the best known pundits in the blogosphere. In a recent entry in his blog he writes, "This blog has one of the fastest-growing RSS feed lists I know of, but it's still a scary-low percentage of my readership." He then appeals to his readership to subscribe to his RSS feed, and provides explicit, step-by-step instructions--for the second time in three months.

Why does Seth Godin want his readers to subscribe to his feed? Because he doesn't have an e-mail list. The author of Permission Marketing--the e-mail marketer's manifesto--does not have an e-mail list. Like many other authors, entrepreneurs, consultants, pundits and others whose opinions an audience is craving, he can't possibly have the time to write something, then rewrite or edit it for e-mail, manage a distribution list, create multiple versions for various readers and segments, and then answer the hundreds of responses he receives.

Enter RSS, which allows Seth (and everyone else) to write once, publish once, but distribute to everyone who wants to read. On his blog, Seth encourages people to sign up for feeds on whatever they are interested in.

"RSS is not just for nerds," he blogs. "Not anymore."

Now we know from Seth that All Marketers are Liars(the name of his new book)--Seth Godin included. It may be true that RSS is not just for nerds. But the vast majority of avid users are nerds. Of the top 10 RSS feeds (according to Bloglines) SIX of them are technology related. Two more are humor, one is general interest, and only one is a news feed. Expand to the top 20 feeds and the ratios don't change much: ten technology, five news, three general interest, two humor.

In comparison, if we look also at the top 20 Web sites according to Comscore/MediaMetrix, only five of them have feeds that show up in Bloglines' top 20 list (and one of these is the Google corporate blog, whose subscriber base likely has a higher correlation to Slashdot feeders than readers of MSN's Slate). Just one of the top 20 is technology-focused in its content.

Only 6 percent of the online population uses RSS feeds, and this 6 percent clearly is not a representative sample. Sorry Seth, but they are nerds. They are probably the same people who downloaded PointCast in 1996 and hogged all their companies' bandwidth to be first into the "Push" phenomenon. That's not to suggest that RSS will go the way of Push, although rolling out RSS feeds based on the consumption of the current user base will certainly stunt its growth.

But the unflattering comparison to Push is apt in another way. Even back in 1996, when online tenure for most people was a year or less, consumers preferred active browsing to content delivery. Push tried to fix a model that wasn't broken, and still isn't. Consumers are doing more active browsing than ever. If RSS does take root beyond the digerati, it won't displace active browsing. Its growth is more likely to come at the expense of online's most maligned channel: e-mail.

By way of example, I get the New York Times three ways every day, none of them in print:

  • 1. I'm an online subscriber, so I get "Today's Headlines" by e-mail at 3:11 a.m. every day. But by the time I log on, I have a dozen or more other e-mails to attend to, and the Times is often overlooked.

  • 2. I'm on a Mac with OS X, so I have a feature on my computer called the "Dashboard" which is a sort of operating system veneer with small "widgets" running on it. I track my stocks here, the weather in my city and probably yours, see what movie is playing at my neighborhood cinema, and read the New York Times through their own widget.

  • 3. Finally, my Mac's RSS reader is the OS X browser Safari, making RSS reviewing one step easier than it would be on a PC. And it came bundled with the Times feed as a bookmark, meaning that every time I look in my bookmarks I'm told how many new New York Times stories have been published. (There is nothing like a 3-digit figure in there to make me feel ignorant in a way that only reading the Times can correct.)

    All three of my New York Times channels bring me to the site. Of the three, the one I could do without is the e-mail. Everyone could do without one more e-mail every day. So now I ignore it, and soon I expect I'll unsubscribe. Same with e-mails I receive daily from a dozen other sources who do have RSS feeds. And that is where RSS will have its greatest near-term impact, and where publishers (and retailers, given their e-mail reliance) should be preparing for a transition. To roll out RSS successfully, study how your audience uses (and ignores) e-mail, rather than building a strategy that appeals to Engadget's audience (unless you're Engadget, of course). Realize also that if RSS does begin to take a bite out of e-mail, RSS quickly evolves from a test platform to the cost of doing business online. Think like a newsletter, not a newspaper.