The Trouble with RSS
Once again, I’m out of fashion. The whole world, it seems, has jumped on the RSS bandwagon. With glasses of Kool-Aid waved high, the beckon me to join their ranks. And yet I keep looking at it and saying, huh?
Maybe all those years of hanging out at the cutting edge has dulled my thirst for the next big wave. Or maybe, knowing how difficult it is to cross the chasm, I’ve seen more of my share of technologies crash and burn.
As everyone will tell you, RSS is the next big thing that marketers should be keeping an eye on. Nobody is going so far as to say that RSS will replace e-mail, but you know it is the subtext of evangelical enthusiasm. Everyone--well, at least everyone who has a RSS product or service waiting in the wings--is talking about how everything is going RSS. Expect to see people quote a Yahoo Ipsos study that reports 31 percent of the online audience 18 and over is using RSS regularly in one shape or another.
So what is the problem here? Why do I think that RSS is not the next wave for marketers. What makes me so stubborn?
First, let’s take a look at that 31 percent number. In reality, only 4 percent of that number are actually accessing RSS in what I would consider the traditional way: downloading an RSS reader and subscribing to news feeds. The other 27 percent, as you might imagine from a study coming from Yahoo, are accessing RSS feeds from the MyYahoo website portal. Within this context, the reach of RSS feeds has little or no meaning. RSS is just a delivery mechanism and doesn’t provide the main reason that marketers should care about RSS in the first place.
The reason why those in the e-mail marketing community are gathering their RSS sales materials is that RSS is a technology that can bypass the inbox, and all the associated spam filters, white lists, and CertifiedMail postage stamps. DIRECT ACCESS TO THE DESKTOP! No wondering they are all salivating! And, of course, the idea of direct access to the desktop is totally lost if you have to go to a Web site first.
So let’s be real: RSS is a technology that has been adopted by 4 percent of the online population (some figures put it as high as 7 percent). To be clear, you can release any technology--a desktop app that reminds you to buy dog food, for instance--and find 4 percent of early adopters to download it. Which leads us to the first problem with RSS: the reach isn't there.
RSS is just another in a long series of technologies known as desktop apps that marketers have been trying to exploit for years. Apps you download that keep you informed about your favorite bands. Apps that remind you to take your medicine. Apps that replace retailer’s catalogs: all have come--and gone. Which is the second problem with RSS:
There is no historical precedent that people want it, and plenty of evidence that people grow tired and abandon these types of apps quickly. And beyond the deliverability issue, there is very little to recommend RSS from a MARKETERS’ standpoint. RSS is text-centric, not graphic-centric. There is no Send to a Friend feature to generate buzz, word of mouth, or viral pass-through. Certainly early adopters are advertising and marketing-phobic. One must proactively view the content and unlike other apps like e-mail and instant messaging, which are communications vehicles, there is little incentive to check incoming content. People check e-mail and instant messaging products because they are fundamentally looking for communication from people they know or do business with.
The final point is that people confuse technologies that are good with technologies that are good for marketing. Every time someone mentions RSS, he talks about that 31 percent of people already using it. It is assumed and implied that all technologies are good advertising mediums. They are not. RSS feeds are nothing more than the old PointCast model dressed up for the 21st Century. PointCast didn’t work then. And I remain skeptical that for the foreseeable future, RSS will work now.