Is Twitter Killing RSS?

For media, there are two primary use cases for RSS, promotion of new content and content syndication. The latter is true plumbing that offers low cost, reliability and convenience while the former is a means for promoting new content through RSS client applications, widgets, iPhone apps, purpose specific apps, and so on… you see the headline and click on the content that interests you. Twitter is killing this use case for RSS.

Few media sites enable full text RSS feeds and for a good reason, it robs them of site traffic that is monetized whereas RSS feeds are not. This has always hamstrung the utility of RSS outside of blogs, yet still provided “good enough” utility that you could still use it.

Truth be told, publishers see RSS as something they should do while at the same time not really embrace it because while providing a convenient syndication mechanism the fact remains that it strips branding elements out, is notoriously difficult to monetize, and has stagnated as a technology because in the absence of branding and monetization there really isn’t much of a movement behind RSS to evolve the standard(s). Even microformats, something that should be obvious good stuff for publishers, have not been widely adopted for the same reasons, it provides utility for end users but not much benefit for publishers and content owners.

Something interesting happened along the way, Twitter achieved critical mass and bloggers and mainstream media alike adopted it to promote content. Every post I write is automatically tweeted out with the post title and link to source, not unlike what other sites do, and over the last year I have noticed a steady increase in referral traffic from Twitter as my followers grew and links to my posts were clicked on… in essence people are following me much like they subscribe to my RSS feed. I like it because the traffic returns to my site rather than be consumed in a RSS client that I can’t apply integrated analytics to, which has the effect of presenting a complete picture of site traffic without having to guess what my traffic actually is when I add in what I believe is bled off through my full text RSS feed.

In my own usage behaviors I noticed something starting when I followed ZDNetBlogs quite a while back, I stopped reading their RSS feed and started getting my story links through their twitter updates. Today I use the much improved Twitter search function to find profiles for the publications I like to read, following them and getting their content via links in tweets. For bloggers, the ability to follow provides not only the content updates in most cases but also the opportunity to interact with the authors and catch all their other updates that wouldn’t even show up in RSS.

Twitter provides publishers with several key advantages over RSS, namely the ability to control brand and force traffic back to their monetized site. Of course none of this precludes them from also using RSS to distribute content and there are equally compelling reasons for doing so but if I were to make a prediction it would be that publishers increasingly find primary utility for RSS in the backoffice while de-empathizing RSS for audience acquisition, in the process embracing Twitter as a mechanism for engaging an audience and promoting content at the same time.