Consumer RSS: 1999-2010

paidContent made an interesting connection about Bloglines being shut down and the broader question of RSS in the age of Twitter.

Indeed, in its announcement, Bloglines similarly blames broader trends for its demise, saying, “As Steve Gillmor pointed out inTechCrunch last year, being locked in an RSS reader makes less and less sense to people as Twitter and Facebook dominate real-time information flow. Today RSS is the enabling technology – the infrastructure, the delivery system. RSS is a means to an end, not a consumer experience in and of itself. As a result, RSS aggregator usage has slowed significantly, and Bloglines isn’t the only service to feel the impact. The writing is on the wall.”

A month before Steve published his post I wrote a post that remains one of the most popular pieces I have written to date.

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.

The issue isn’t Twitter and RSS but rather consumer RSS applications have remained for the most part locked in a paradigm that turns out to not be very useful for anyone but a small segment of the market. RSS is at it’s core plumbing and it will remain a key technology for the foreseeable future but the way that people find, collect, and consume content is changing and RSS has diminishing importance because of what it doesn’t enable for the people who create content… any monetization of content, brand control, traffic funneling, and audience acquisition.

This is not to say that some very innovative applications are not being built on top of RSS, like Feedly and Newser, but in both cases the subject of RSS takes the back burner to user experience, presentation, and social layer. Simply put, there is no market for RSS.

There is No RSS Market

Richard McManus writes that the RSS market is in disarray. Specifically what he is saying is that the market for RSS client applications has gone sideways, he isn’t touching the other half of the equation, which is what publishers are doing with RSS.

I wrote about the second half a while back in what was one of the most widely read posts I have ever written, Is Twitter Killing 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.”

My prediction has largely come true… no publisher is putting emphasis on their front end RSS while there is near universal embracing of Twitter for audience engagement and promotion of content. This is beyond debate at this point, it has happened.

Richard’s point about the RSS client app market has roots in the same observation I made, which is that RSS as a standard has failed to evolve in ways that solve publisher problems. In the absence of meaningful evolution of RSS as a standard, it is no surprise that RSS as an end user application has floundered.

The problem isn’t that the market is in disarray but rather that there is no “market” for something that is, in spite of being free across the board, not growing in end users or with publishers. On any given day there are likely no more than 1 million active RSS users, and half of those are committed to Google Reader which is a pretty good product at this point. This may sound like a large pool of users but it most certainly is not when it comes to formulating a product strategy, and herein lies the fundamental problem that RSS client application providers face, consumer users want a lot and won’t pay for it and enterprises, who will pay, don’t want a specialized product called RSS, they want this functionality slipstreamed into products they are already using.

I still use RSS with enough frequency to be called a regular user and Google Reader has put out some really good functionality to help users discover new and relevant content, a frequent topic for me. However, I would not advise anyone to go out and build an RSS application, even a mobile one, in this market because I don’t believe there is an actual market to begin with.

Feedly Adds Topic Exploration

Feedly is one of my favorite services, not only does it offer a highly polished presentation layer that makes reading my subscriptions more pleasing but it has a nice set of social features for sharing content and with their latest release a really compelling set of search and topic exploration features.

If you have been reading my stuff over the last few years you will know that one of my big criticisms of existing feed readers and content services is that they are very good at presenting sources that you already know exist, very poor at finding the best content, not just the most popular, for any given category or topic.

Feedly has now moved into content discovery in a major way, leveraging their substantial installed base and ability to capture and analyze metadata related to content sources and individual posts. As much as I liked this service before, I love it now…

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Acrylic Times RSS Client

I think I wrote something about this application last year. Acrylic Times is a very slick RSS client application that faces huge challenges in spite of being a beautifully designed application.

1) It’s a license in an era when people have an expectation of free.

2) The RSS client market is not growing and it’s not that big to begin with. RSS client apps (hosted or installed) tend to appeal to a very niche market (tech centric, high income/education, male) despite being available as mature product offerings for many years. RSS as a product/technology name is a significant barrier in itself, hell you might as well call these apps “cancer” because for the mass market it’s just as appealing.

3) The fundamental weakness in the user experience is that you have to proactively manage content sources. This is a huge turnoff for me because my OPML file is a mess and I just don’t want to take the extra steps to subscribe to content sources I find on my own…

Nobody is doing content discovery at the source level really well, but balancing content relevancy to user behavior within defined sources is coming along nicely. One of the most exciting apps in this regard is Feedly, I absolutely love what Edwin and team are doing but I don’t think of that as an RSS app… it’s an application that takes advantage of RSS for content but RSS is just one content source.

Another example of this is the PostRank Twitter Newsroom, which builds on extensive experience measuring RSS feeds and applies the same ranking mechanism to twitter streams. This is just one more example of how broadcast content is converging with social recommendation. The next frontier is bringing email into the mix with web intelligence derived from social networks and content.

At any rate, check out Times and give it a test drive.

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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.

To 90,000 Twitter Followers in 30 Days

I don’t think this is such a good idea. What it leads to is artificial inflation of followers that disrupts algorithms for determining influence (yeah they are pretty weak right now but constantly improving). It also leads to the most popular profiles benefiting from the law of accelerating returns and that’s not the meritocracy that social networks are supposed to represent.

Last month Twitter quietly launched a new feature that generated a list of suggested users to follow. Most likely as a result of this list, the followers to many Twitter accounts increased exponential over the course of the last month. @LiveEarth, my employer’s twitter account (which is maintained primarily by me), saw a rise in followers from the mid 2,000s to over 90,000 between January 16 and February 22, when, suddenly, the meteoric rise in followers came to a screeching halt.

[From To 90,000 Twitter Followers in 30 Days | netZoo]

The same thing happened in RSS when “feed bundles” and default feeds in applications started distorting subscriber numbers, the result being that the number of subscribers reported for an RSS feed is pretty much a worthless number today.

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RSS Adoption Rates

What’s holding RSS back, asks Rubel, the answer is simple: R S and S. Nobody outside of a minority group of self-described geeks will use an RSS client or online reader. I know our numbers and I know what Bloglines and Google Reader do in terms of daily users. It’s no more than half a million users who are on these apps with any regularity. Don’t get me wrong, this is an important half a million users because they are the tip of the spear for new media models, the innovators that have shown a path for a new interaction model with online media, but mass market they are not.

Go to Newsgator.com and you will see that we minimize RSS and focus on what people are doing and why it matters. RSS is plumbing, widgets, social computing and other applications are the things that people interact with.

Rubel points out a very important point for the future, the way content owners and publishers use their newsfeed will determine winners and losers in the future media market. Syndication of content and aggregation are massively empowered with RSS technologies and entities like the AP are the big losers here. You may never use an RSS application but you will certainly be relying on RSS infrastructure in the future even if you are oblivious to it.

This larger promise still holds and as the technologies become more invisible the newsfeed could even one day subsume RSS.

[From Micro Persuasion: RSS Adoption at 11% and it May Be Peaking, Forrester Says]

RSS Advertising Shows Signs of Life

There is some interesting data included in this post about a resurgence in advertising on top of RSS feeds. Historically this has been a disappointing category, most prominently featuring FeedBurner’s efforts to monetize the feed with embedded advertising. This is not to suggest that FeedBurner failed, but rather that it turned out not to be the slam dunk that many thought. It may be because ads are easily ignored, or even stripped out, in RSS feeds or that engagement rates are low, I really don’t know but monetizing RSS would be a big win for the media industry.

It had better be, because it’s certainly a larger part of publishers’ traffic. Thirty-four percent of global respondents to a March social media survey from Universal McCann said they had “ever” subscribed to an RSS feed. That represents a large jump from the previous year’s findings, when the agency found just 15 percent said they had subscribed to a feed. The data were gathered from 17,000 Internet users in 29 countries, aged 16 to 54.

[From RSS Advertising Shows Signs of Life - ClickZ]

The Future of RSS

May 1st was RSS Awareness Day and while I have a seriously vested interest in this topic, I chose not to observe it. Why? In short, I was busy on other business but also I’ve had this subject gnawing at me and it just took a few days to compose my thoughts.

Let’s take a look at the main areas that RSS companies, like NewsGator, focus on and score the success:

  1. Blog syndication: This is game over, RSS is the prevailing mechanism by which blogs are syndicated, and a great many people consume blog and traditional media content through dedicated readers or start pages that have generic RSS capabilities.
  2. Enterprise: Success here has been more elusive. We are doing a robust business in the enterprise but selling a generic RSS platform into large companies is laborious and time intensive. As I have noted before, there is a broad disconnect between IT organizations and how users actually employ technology, RSS is a great example of this divide.
  3. Widgets: Strong success here, we have been deploying a widgets/data service to media companies that is entirely built on RSS technology. We are currently delivering 200 million widget impressions a month at this point, suggesting that RSS powered widgets are a bright spot.
  4. Media: Too many media sites put out partial text feeds, this impairs the ability of companies to build next generation consumption applications that rely on some degree of keyword/entity extraction for semantic features.
  5. Start pages: Great RSS use case here, it is estimated that about 60% of the activity in popular start pages is reading RSS feeds.
  6. Authenticated Feeds: In a nutshell, this is a disappointing area because the overwhelming majority of applications that could deliver personalized and user/password protected feeds just don’t. These applications include all of the popular enterprise applications and even popular on-demand apps like Salesforce.com.
  7. Feed Monetization: Mixed results here, FeedBurner enables dropping in of contextualized advertising but it’s not apparent that many people are doing this with great success. The problem with putting ads in feeds is that it’s to easy for client applications to strip out the ad units automatically.
  8. Desktop Client Apps: Of course we enjoy market dominating success here but it’s not shocking to suggest that desktop RSS apps appeal to a core heavy use audience and growth will be minimal to moderate at best.
  9. Mobile RSS: There are apps for mobile devices but none have really broken out as success stories. It’s my observation that applying a desktop RSS consumption mode to a mobile device is a nonstarter.
  10. Attention Streaming: This is something I am intensely interested in. We, as in a small group of leading companies, are just starting to get some momentum here so prognosis is good.
  11. APML: A promising initiative but while a lot of apps are generating it, very few are actually consuming it. I would also wager that a lot of potential developer partners are probably waiting for APML to move into a traditional standards process before committing. I think this was a failing of OPML as well, lacking a third party to move it forward it just plateaued. A lot of applications use OPML, for sure, but it’s all manual… imagine how much farther along we would be if there was a common feed store that enabled all applications that can consume subscription information to access a subscription, rather than having to update every application with new subscription information manually?

#10 is where I want to start with in terms of continued discussion. Basically the entire RSS market has been built around a use mode of subscribe-then-read, and that is likely to continue as an exclusive model for many users or in parallel to other use modes. The weakness in this approach is that you only know what you know, as in you have know about a feed before you can subscribe to it… and I generally work off the approach that it’s far more likely that the best content on any keyword is not necessarily found in my OPML.

There are an increasing array of companies that are working on a next generation of feed consumption use model, built not around the explicit subscribing of feeds and chronological consumption of content. In order for RSS to get to the next level of mainstreaming we have to think in terms of behavioral filtering of content and discovery of new content sources based on explicit preferences or inferred preferences derived from behaviors. This is exciting for me as a user.

I think one of the reasons why Techmeme has proven to be a consistent favorite is that this next generation model is partly how Gabe built the system. Through using Techmeme I am essentially outsourcing feed discovery to the service and consuming content not based on subscriptions but topics. As a users, ordinary or power, I would like to have a personal Techmeme that delivers content based on my consumption habits, or put another way, my attention streams.

To further develop this model, I would like to see a social dimension develop that pushes up/down content based on a collaborative filter that takes into account my social graph and what they are consuming and rating, explicitly or otherwise. The problem with rating that we need to overcome is that a very small percentage of people will actually score content, so that’s why the attention streams become valuable, through activities they are effectively scoring content.

For enterprises this is nothing but goodness, but unfortunately it will likely be that enterprise users are the last to benefit from these advances because they are dependent upon IT. It will happen but the use cases we have to build to will be specific and in some cases tedious in an effort to get a flywheel spinning that elevates RSS in the enterprise to a strategic focus.

Lastly, RSS is an ideal syndication technology for publishers to take advantage of to expand audience and monetization of content. The missing link up until recently is widget technology, because inserting ads directly into feeds is a nonstarter in my opinion. Charlene Li said it best when she said “wigets are RSS in a dress”. Charlene, who attributed the quote to someone else, wasn’t being facetious or otherwise inappropriate, she was observing something deceptively simple, widgets present a use mode that average users like because it puts them in control while presenting a visually compelling experience.

With traffic acquisition costs being what they are, media sites are unlikely to see significant growth in site traffic using linear techniques like adding more pages and/or better SEO. “Going viral” is popular to say but hard to do, widgets offer a simple and low cost mechanism for publishers to use to drive additional site traffic not by getting site traffic but by dispersing content to a variety of destinations, including social networking pages, blogs, start pages, and non-affiliated websites.

On balance RSS has been an exciting area to mine away in, with a diverse range of target markets, use cases, and a broad array of interesting companies. It’s here to stay but at the same time is begging for a new interaction model to drive broad mass market adoption; it’s still too geek. RSS in media is the ideal syndication technology and with newer technologies like widgets, finally able to be monetized.

Enterprise RSS Day of Action

200804010908.jpg Enterprise RSS Day of Action is coming up on April 24th! If you are with a company that is taking advantage of RSS within an enterprise context, whether vendor or someone who has deployed it, please get involved. Drop a comment on this post or send me an email (click email me on the sidebar).

I also want to take a moment to highlight the fact that this is not a NewsGator initiated event, it is something I became aware of through James Dellow’s blog (he is the organizer) and a couple of emails. It would have been difficult to meet James through the normal channels as he is based in Australia, which again underscores the power of blogging in networking.

A great outcome of this event would be the compilation of tools, vendors, customer success stories, and best practices as well as anti-best practices.