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Are RSS feeds the next great marketing tool?

RSS feeds are quickly gaining steam with content Web sites like Yahoo and the New York Times, but they also offer a meaningful alternative to e-mail marketing.

Most people still don't know what they are, but that doesn't seem to have dampened the buzz around RSS feeds.

Netscape initially developed RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds as a way of creating portals for online news organizations. The addition of XML and the emergence of Web logs (blogs) have since brought them to the attention of the tech savvy, particularly e-mail marketers. In fact, RSS feeds may provide e-mail with substantial competition on the marketing front, said Don Peppers, founding partner of Norwalk, Conn.-based Peppers & Rogers Group.

Essentially, RSS users download a program that then accepts information from Web sites that provide a "feed." That feed then pops up a headline, a short summary and a link on the user's screen to the Web page where the content is located. Feeds are often displayed in Web browsers or, similar to some e-mail programs, in small boxes that appear in the corner of a desktop.

RSS feeds offer some real benefits over e-mail newsletters -- and drawbacks, Peppers said.

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"The biggest [benefit] is that it takes you out of the spam storm," he said.

RSS feeds are not e-mail and do not run into content filters. RSS feeds also benefit from being a "pull" technology rather than a "push" technology, he said. Users can determine what type of content they wish to receive, and whether they want to follow the feed to the site or whether to simply ignore it. Just as importantly, they do not have the same security risks as e-mail. Because they are links to sites, they are not subject to people's fears of downloading attachments.

However, RSS feeds don't offer the same level of personalization of an e-mail newsletter. They are mass blasts, provide only a small amount of information, have a limited amount of text and have no images or sound. Useful metrics are also proving to be a challenge.

SodaMail.com, an Internet start up in Petaluma, Calif., is hoping to solve part of the problem of RSS personalization.

"Ours is effectively a news service couched in a larger venture," said CEO Lauren Elliott. "We're personalizing news. One of the easiest ways to do that is through RSS feeds. It's a way for us to get information we never have before."

SodaMail will offer integration between RSS feeds that a user selects with a personal database. For example, the service could take a feed from the Web-based DVD service Netflix, alert users when a change has been made to their account, coordinate it with their personal calendar and send them a text message, Elliott said.

SodaMail is using personalization technology from hosted CRM provider Coravue Inc. in Los Angeles. RSS is still in the early stages of adoption but will catch on quickly, predicts Coravue CEO Cliff Allen.

"The two places where RSS can really help a company are where you have a large number of products or product categories that do not overlap to large degree and where you have timely changes in something, either inventory or price, such as commodities," Allen said.

Pricing changes are a perfect candidate for RSS, he said. Another Coravue client, Sideshow Collectibles Inc. in Westlake Village, Calif., is using both e-mail newsletters and RSS feeds. Sideshow Collectibles will continue to send its e-mail newsletters on subjects such as collectibles from movies like James Bond and TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but will also add RSS feeds that allow customers to follow a link to those newsletters.

Alerting potential customers that a product has become available is an ideal use of RSS feeds, Peppers said. The online auction site eBay, has already launched an RSS feed, and Peppers predicts RSS feeds will join e-mail marketing, Web site banner advertisements and purchasing of search engine keywords as viable marketing tools.

"The RSS feed is another angle which will be every bit as significant within a year," Peppers said. "An increasing number of companies are doing it. Most sophisticated content providers already have feeds."

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