RSS: What Is It And Why You Should Care Part I

In the relatively short life span of online advertising, a lot of new technologies ladened with over-promises have been left on the doorstep of advertising and media agencies in hopes of a quick and loving adoption.

Think what we have asked! We have asked agencies built on the notion that "you can't get fired for buying network TV" to embrace a totally new medium at a time when audiences are disbursing to a multitude of other new media unimagined even 10 years ago: digital video recorders, pay-per-view, podcasting, handhelds, mobile phones, 300 channels of cable, and yes, the Internet.

We have tried to move people inculcated with gross rating points and overnights from banners, to skyscrapers, to rich media, to streaming video, to behavioral targeting, and now to blog-based and RSS advertising in a relatively short period of time. It is hard enough for those of us who earn a living on the sell side to keep up with all of the changes and how they can potentially impact brands. We lack standards and uniform pricing which only adds to the confusion and doubt. Yet we have expected media planners and buyers to not only grasp what we offer, but to embrace it.



Burned by early ad serving promises of one-to-one marketing that were never technically possible or even a good idea, agencies and their clients, in my view, are simply overwhelmed by choices, many of which they don't really trust.

In the next three weeks, I will try to demystify the newest frontier of interactive advertising - RSS - by examining how it all works from the perspective of the publisher, the agency, and finally the client.

RSS (the acronym stands for really simple syndication) in essence is a method for users to "subscribe" to lots of different blogs and Web sites and be notified when there are significant content updates. RSS is especially handy for keeping up on blogs and podcasts. While it may not supplant Web browsing and e-mail newsletters on the majority of desktops, RSS offers significant utility for both Web publishers and end users. RSS is being used by most major publishers (including, Amazon, and Yahoo!) and in the clearest sign that RSS has arrived, Microsoft plans to incorporate RSS functionality in the next generation of its Windows operating system.

Let's peek behind the curtain for a moment. RSS is a file format that Netscape first introduced in 1997. The common usage is to say "RSS feed," which incorrectly makes RSS sound like a push technology. It's simpler than that - RSS is a way of publishing Web documents in two simultaneous formats: one for people, one for machines. The people version has the graphical layout you expect to see when you land on a Web page. The machine version is stripped down so that it is easier for search engines to "crawl" the page and index it. RSS uses the stripped down version so that publishers can syndicate their content at a lower cost than if they used the "people" version.

A second benefit for publishers to participate in RSS is lower content acquisition costs. Unlike getting syndicated information from content providers that charge for each story, the information generated by bloggers is generally available without cost. Their voices are often unique and can provide an editorial mix that goes beyond what is provided by syndicated services.

As publishers create new content from RSS feeds, they are simultaneously creating more ad inventory for their sites. Needless to say this inventory can be monetized exclusively by the publisher resulting in new revenue.

A third clear benefit for publishers is to find new audiences by providing content to RSS syndication. This greatly increases the potential to generate higher traffic as RSS subscribers click-through headlines or summaries back to the publisher's site. Moreover, as sophisticated RSS users begin to rely ONLY on their feeds for information (rather than say, bookmarked pages), publishers have an opportunity to maintain user relationships they might otherwise lose.

Another benefit is reaching an audience that normally might not visit your site. Let's say you have great local baseball coverage and provide it for RSS syndication (, for example) you will reach users from around the country who might otherwise not sample your content. This will become increasingly important as the major portals unfold their RSS strategies and open up their massive audiences to new content (perhaps provided by you.)

The final and perhaps the most important benefit, is the chance to monetize this growing audience. Aggregators and blog search companies are able to insert highly targeted ads into RSS feeds that users will see even if they just check the latest headlines and don't click-through to the content provider. These audiences are pre-qualified by opting into RSS feeds, which tend to be highly vertical in their content.

In the next two columns we will explore the specifics of advertising on RSS feeds.

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