Will RSS Ever Go Mainstream?

RSS Marketing

When I first started Copyblogger, I was a huge RSS evangelist. As a long-time email marketing guy, I was sick to death of overzealous filters, deliverability issues and the low-level of trust people had for online publishers thanks to the spammers.

Over two years later, email is still very much alive. That fact is most evident with my other projects, but even here at Copyblogger over 6,000 people subscribe by email and they tend to be the most responsive.

Email still has its problems, and they’re not getting any better. But the public at large either doesn’t care about RSS, or doesn’t know they’re using it (a la My Yahoo, etc).

That’s why I’m happy to see projects like Guy Kawasaki’s Alltop. It’s completely powered by RSS feeds, but it’s all behind the curtain. People want access to information… they don’t care about the underlying technology.

Michael Arrington slammed Alltop as nothing new, and to those of us in the blogging/technology echo chamber, that’s true. But the idea is to get out of the circle jerk and reach the regular people, you know?

Good job and good luck with Alltop, Guy… I’d tell my Mom about it but she got rid of the computer. Yes, I’m adopted. :-)

P.S. May 1 is RSS Awareness Day… get the details over at Daily Blog Tips.

About the Author: Brian Clark is the founding editor of Copyblogger, and co-founder of Teaching Sells.

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  1. Funny thing we thought about it on the same day eh Brian?

  2. Even if RSS did go ‘mainstream’, which it very well could, it could never replace email. That said, as it gets more popular, you’ll likely see more opportunities to reach people.

    Whether or not email is still in use.

    I was talking to a guy I know recently who is a big internet guy. He spends all of his time in this virtual landscape. And he didn’t know what I was talking about when I mentioned RSS and feeds. I was surprised!

    That’s compelling evidence that there is still a ways to go.

  3. I agree that the potential for RSS is much bigger than its current use. The service RSS provides is a perfect match for an audience that currently either doesn’t know it exists or doesn’t know how to use it. Somebody’s going to connect those dots in a simple manner and it’s gonig to attract a large audience.

  4. When I worked at a northern California newspaper, I tried to argue the benefits of adding RSS feeds to the site for local news, etc.

    At the time, my words were lost due to management not understanding why people would want to get the news from us but may not always be able to go to the web site, want to check it on the go, etc.

    It think the lack of mainstream attention to RSS is largely due to the fear that it will reduce readership of the actual site/product.

    That’s just my 2 cents worth…

  5. Even if RSS did go ‘mainstream’, which it very well could, it could never replace email.

    I agree. Email is for personal communication, but we used it as a subscription mechanism because it was so easy. RSS is much better suited for content delivery, and it puts the recipient in total control of the relationship.

  6. Brian thanks for this post…..I don’t have email subscriptions active on my blog. But now after reading that Copyblogger has over 6,000 email subscribers….I’ll give you one guess what I’m about to do!

  7. “Even if RSS did go ‘mainstream’, which it very well could, it could never replace email.”

    That is not the aim of RSS indeed. They serve for different purposes.

  8. About 10% of my subscribers are via email. (Including my mom.) It’s comfortable and easy without even a tiny learning curve.

    I do think rebranding RSS and giving it a new wrapper that doesn’t look technical would help a lot. Packaging matters.

    It doesn’t help that so many blogs, when one clicks the “Subscribe” link, click through to the actual RSS feed itself. Because that’s so very useful, a screenful of XML when I was trying to subscribe to your content. 98% of users will drop it right there as being “something technical” and may never come back.

    And some of those will think “that RSS thing has to do with a lot of computer code I can’t understand, it’s for programmers.” Fatal.

    I like the (I think) default Feedburner wording: “subscribe in a reader.” Doesn’t sound technical or hard, just friendly and easy. And you’ve got the little RSS icon alongside for those who have learned to recognize it–best of all worlds.

  9. About half of my subscribers are e-mail, because RSS has a fairly high barrier to entry. The type of person who could not understand RSS are those who still use IE, Hotmail and still call the internet the “World Wide Web”. E-mail is old media in the the Web 2.0 era, its something everyone understands because it has been around since the AOL era. RSS has been around almost as long, but fairly underground due to the type of people who use it.

  10. Very interesting… and something I’ve been wondering about myself. I have very few RSS subscribers but in my site stats it tells me that hundreds of people have ‘bookmarked’ my site in the traditional way.

    I think it depends on the niche. Mine doesn’t seem to know or care about RSS. So should I obsess over it? I guess not. With reading so many ‘blogging blogs’ you start to think more people know about it. But I know I didn’t…until I started blogging myself.

  11. i think that rss feeds will go mainstream but like you said with my yahoo they won’t even know they are using it. just like in facebook book. everybody that uses facebook loves there facebook feed but if i ask my friends on facebook what a rss is they have no idea.

  12. I have to agree with the others; the “mainstreaming” of RSS will not take the form of replacing email outright. You’ll see more and more tech-saavy and demi-tech-saavy people take the plunge into feed readers (particularly online readers), but our non-techie brethren will always be able to satisfice with their existing behaviors.

    Which is a shame, ‘cuz RSS has changed my life. Oh well.

  13. Sure it will.

    As more people use multiple computers, RSS feeders (especially online ones like Google Reader and Bloglines) will become more popular. Also, unlike emails, RSS is virtually spam-free.

    After all, Twitter is just glorified micro-RSS, right?

  14. Every internet marketer I know uses RSS. And it’s integrated into major browsers.

    I think it’s ‘mainstream’ as far as the audience that needs it.

    I DO think, also, that it will continue to find applications as a way to exchange and syndicate content behind the scenes, like AllTop.

  15. Non-tech people have not yet figured out how to implement it oh have been shown an easy way to use it. I love using iGoogle!

    It’s like having a dynamic up to the minute newpaper that automatically updates itself without all the visual clutter. And I find it way better than a email looking feedreader because you can drag and drop the feeds around, I have my top 10, but if a blogger takes a break I move him down and replace that spot with a new more active blog. Plus my search engine is right there on the same home page when I open a new browser window (or Tab).

    One of the big barriers is all the “flavors” of RSS, I wish that most blogger would just put their feeds on Feedburner so that they can have only one RRS feed button that automatically detects what feedreader the user has. All those +Google, +MyYahoo, etc…I believe confuse the newbies.

  16. Great thought provoking post. I have a small number of readers and I too find that the larger majority of people subscribe via e-mail, and that they are usually the most active. I have tried to encourage some of my friends to use RSS that subscribe via e-mail, but with very little positive results.

    I also think Shawn Pearson makes an excellent observation about the various “flavors” of RSS feeds. Feedburner is the only way to go to eliminate confusion.

  17. Why focus on RSS alone? Experts should be explaining the concept of feeds in general, not just a certain feed format.

  18. In a certain way it already is. Many power users use it to drive the web with participation, and many apps rely on them to drive certain content and other materials. Although your average user may not know what (and be frightened by) RSS is, it is very much a part of this web.

  19. Personally I never sign up for email when I can use RSS. Email has a sense of pressure to it that RSS just doesn’t have. RSS is much easier to delete and I only go read my feeds when I have time, unlike email, which is used for communication throughout the day. But I think there are a lot of people out there who don’t even know what RSS is. Maybe that’s why they use email even though RSS seems to make more sense.

  20. If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Or that’s the way it’s supposed to work, except it doesn’t. Most people get used to a certain technology, and if it works well enough, they’ll stick with it. For example, the Dvorak keyboard is superior to QWERTY, but which one to people stick with? E-mail has its problems, but not enough for most normal people to worry about RSS feeds. I think only people who are, for whatever reason, voracious consumers of information really use RSS feeds.

    - Dave

  21. On my websites that I update less frequently (where each page of content that I add is extremely important), I focus on email subscriptions instead of normal subscriptions. Basically, people are less likely to unsubscribe because I didn’t update in a week if they have to dig up an email. Every subscription has it’s place.

    Alltop is a brilliant idea.

  22. Well, no one else has got academic about it, so I guess I will throw in that perspective.

    RSS is a discontinuous innovation. Like most discontinuous innovations, it was initially targeted at a relatively small group of people: avid blog readers. Because of their activity on the web, these people were being bombarded with e-mail and they were looking for a more effective content distribution system.

    The opportunity of a discontinuous innovation is it blindsides the market leader (in this case, e-mail) by attracting an unimportant customer base (free content junkies = less profitable). In the beginning, it’s just a small group of people, but that group continues to expand as more and more people get addicted to the different types of free content available through RSS.

    Eventually, e-mail marketers find RSS impinging on their customer bases and begin to respond with improvements, otherwise known as sustaining innovations. Spam filters, double opt in, etc. are improvements designed specifically to combat the problems RSS so efficiently addresses.

    The thing is, sustaining innovations are usually targeted at a wider market, not a specific market segment. RSS will always be able to provide a more efficient solution because it caters to the particular segment of people that need it, not the entire electronic indications market at large.

    So will RSS ever go mainstream?

    Probably, but I think a better question is: will people that need RSS ever go mainstream?

    It appears that the web is slowly becoming more and more saturated with people that are free content junkies. If that continues to happen, then that particular market segment might eventually become dominant, and in turn, technologies like RSS that cater to their needs will also become dominant.

    It’s basically the same thing as the Nucor mini-mill coming to dominate the steel industry and bankrupt Bethlehem Steel. I’d guess the same thing is happening with RSS and e-mail. It’s just taking a long time, like it almost always does. 10 years is usually the shortest timeframe for a discontinuous innovation to dominate a large market, I think.

    Then again, how many people really care? God, I need to get out more.

  23. Brian, you’re the reason I added the FeedBlitz email option to my blog approx. 9mos ago, and I’m glad I did….while my subscriber #’s aren’t at the height of your’s, if I didn’t have the email option I’d be losing out on a pretty good chunk of my subscribers. Thanks!

  24. With the rate the internet has grown and all the ways to have access. Nothing is impossible. The new age of commication just plainly rocks.

  25. Totally true. I think I only really GOT RSS like a year ago. My best friend, who’s a total blog junky, doesn’t even get interested in me talking about it. He just likes to check his sites. It’s so weird.

    Anything to make it workable for people, I’m for.

  26. I get many more email subscribers than RSS. I notice that email subscribers seem to stay with you. I also agree that a lot of people still do not quite understand what RSS is. I personally prefer email myself. Thanks for the great post.

  27. “But the public at large either doesn’t care about RSS, or doesn’t know they’re using it”

    …What about the 36000 Feedburner readers? Or is that not accurate?

  28. Seth G does a post every once in awhile explaining what an RSS reader is and why we want one. It’s a good idea.

  29. Brian,

    I too am an RSS evangelist and a blogger. I agree Sonia that “rebranding RSS & giving it a new wrapper …would help a lot. Packaging matters.”

    RSS is a phenomenal foundation on which to build other cool, creative & transformational applications that appeal to “regular people.”

    In December, we launched http://PimpMyNews.com , which lets anyone create a “personalized talking newspaper” from their favorite blogs’ RSS feeds (they can *listen* on Macs/PCs, or on the go on iPhones, iPods and other MP3 players)

    People from 149 countries have used it so far, which seems to support that people like the underlying benefits of RSS (many don’t realize they’re using RSS and don’t care).

    More than 1,000 RSS feeds from the web top blogs power PimpMyNews, and we’re adding new blogs every day based on requests from bloggers and users.

    As an example, here’s the “talking” version of this post: http://pimpmynews.com/p.aspx?i=657691

    Copyblogger is in our “Technology>Other Technology” Category.

    John
    Co-founder, PimpMyNews.com

  30. What about the 36000 Feedburner readers? Or is that not accurate?

    It’s accurate, but I wouldn’t call Copyblogger readers “the public at large.” The bloggers and online marketers who read Copyblogger are very sophisticated Internet users when compared with the average person.

  31. Why pitch RSS against email as either-or?
    The important thing to me is that readers follow a blog, not which way they prefer to do it.

    I personally prefer to subscribe to RSS-feeds through email and then reading in Gmail. Have tried RSS-feeders but like mail much better.

  32. Circle jerk…wow. Real class act, Brian.

  33. Sorry if that was offensive, but looking at the tech blogosphere, I can’t think of a more perfect analogy.

  34. Personally, I don’t think that the average internet user really cares about feeds. I would say that the average user uses the internet to look up info, send e-mail and buy a few things.

    I use my feed reader about once every 2 – 3 weeks but visit certain blogs on a daily basis. Main reason is that things tend to catch my eye in the category or archive section and I usually end up reading different articles than what is in the feed.

    In my opinion, it will take about 20 to 30 years before feeds are mainstream because I think it will take a generation before it really catches on.

    Just my 2 cents worth.

  35. As I see it, pretty much everyone but my colleagues at work – web designers, mind you – know nothing about RSS. If it wasn’t for me, not even they would know what the fuss is all about, and now they use it all the time :)

    The problem about feeds is that they aren’t featured prominently enough to the web surfers, not via the web pages and so much less by the web browser.

  36. I have been using RSS (Google reader to follow the political news) lately. I have about 50 feeds producing about 1500 entries a day. I can much more quickly drill into each entry that has an interesting title or from one of my more favored sources. It is much faster than opening as emails. As soon as I read all that I want I purge the rest “Mark as Read”.

    I am on about 40 marketing email lists that produce about 1-2 emails a day. Many of them I intend to read. But they end up cluttering my email inbox for a time and making it difficult to distinguish from personalized email.

    RSS feed would be wonderful for many of these autoresponders and newsletters.

    A year ago I didn’t see much value in the RSS. Now I do, since I can monitor updates to website very quickly.

    Maybe better to compare RSS as better alternative to reading content based websites vs. RSS to replacing email.

  37. I’m with Damjan: Not enough people know about RSS yet, or if they’ve heard of it, they have no idea how to set it up on their PCs. IT staffers in an organization can be too busy to go around to every employee and help him/her do that, and many management-level employees wouldn’t dream of admitting they need that type of help. If the IT folks could train administrative assistants on how to do it, then their bosses could get RSS set up for them “privately” without any threats to sensitive egos.

  38. “the public at large either doesn’t care about RSS, or doesn’t know they’re using it (a la My Yahoo, etc).”

    …I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there actually. When it’s presented as RSS it basically falls under “something techie” and therefore puts off the general public. They feel that there’s something confusing or difficult about it, and hence shy away. Whereas when it’s presented in a way that disguises its nature the takeup is much larger.

    Even understanding RSS think about it in descriptive terms versus email – email is “type a letter to someone and click send” – anyone can understand that. RSS isn’t much more difficult to summarise but even the most common aggregators aren’t that user friendly, and certainly not for the tech-unsavvy. That’s why things like My Yahoo are probably going to be the way forward for most people when it comes to utilising RSS.

    In regards to the email subscribers being the most active, I think that’s because we do tend to read email more actively in general. Even if we receive a lot of junk email, it’s still more a case of scanning it in more detail whereas with large RSS aggregations the temptation is just to ignore.

  39. After all this time with RSS, most internet users I know are still not aware of its existence.

    That said, lots of those people subscribe to podcasts & vlogs on iTunes, many of them watch the feed on Facebook, or the blog feeds of MySpace…some of them even use My Yahoo. So, in essence they DO KNOW what RSS is.

    Alltop is very nifty looking, with a nice clean interface. But the whole point of RSS is full customization. For example: for me personally, 50-60% of the entertainment feeds on Alltop are not of interest…AND THERE IS NO “TV” CATEGORY. Game over, for me at least.

    When you change “RSS” to “Subscribe to this blog,” most people understand it. When you tell them they can “read your feed” on their My Yahoo, Facebook, or Google pages, they get that too. Drop the Techspeak and use plain English.

  40. I think it’s a great point about trying to get the mainstream immersed in technology without them knowing it. I’ve always had to go to a great deal of trouble to make sure my sites don’t get too “techie”. Words like “blog” and “RSS” are everyday language for all of us, but bring about some strange faces with my visitors (fishermen)…so we don’t call it a “blog”, it’s “news & reports”, “rss” is “subscription options” etc. The key point is that you are getting people to perform some kind of action that you want them to, who cares about the vocabulary

  41. I wrote the post “How to explain RSS the Oprah way” (http://www.backinskinnyjeans.com/2006/09/how_to_explain_.html) because so many of my friends didn’t understand it or got the benefit of it.

    When I explained that RSS allows you to surf the web in minutes versus hours when you’re “Ready to Read Stories”, then the light bulb went off. Everyone wants to save time and effort. But who cares about syndication except techies? That post is now one of the top used layman’s explanations of RSS.

    I think RSS will go deeper mainstream if the surf the web in minutes vs hours message becomes more clear to more people.

  42. RSS won’t ever be mainstream for the simple fact that the public at large doesn’t want to do anything technical. Anything!

    People need to be spoon-fed, which is ironic in the case of RSS, what they see and what the do on the web. Having to install a plug-in, an extension, or a RSS feed is simply beyond the scope of most neophytes.

  43. I agree with ProGrrl and others who say “use plain english.” Acronyms and benefit-less techie talk cause regular people to glaze over and run. RSS has never really been “marketed” well.

    I’m sure we’ve all seen this, but IMHO, the best explanation of RSS for regular people is this “RSS in Plain English” video by CommonCraft:

  44. I guess I should practice what I preach about acronyms! IMHO = In My Humble Opinion, of course. (blush)

  45. What is the idea about RSS being technical?

    RSS is so friggin easy. Any time I’m on a site I like I look for the words “RSS”, “Blog”, or “Feed”. I click the button. I get a prompt to add it to my Google Reader. Done!

    Unless I want to categorize it. One more click Done.

    I don’t go to the website much anymore unless the RSS entry has additional content linked. Then I click on the link back to the hosting website.

    It is powerful for the website owner because they push their website changes right to my face. Lots of this content I never would have seen.

    The benefit to me is I can quickly scan these changes by reviewing the Title (1-2 seconds). Open the message (Scan 2-10 seconds). And then Read the article, blog, page, whatever.

    If the site gets to busy with content I don’t care about, I unsubscribe or just scan Titles and open what looks most interesting.

    Easy.

  46. There’s no doubt that it’s easy David, but so far, the message is not hitting the masses. You’re just going to have to accept that you’re not normal. :-)

  47. Every time I talk about RSS at work, I get blank stares.

    I work in and around hard-core data miners and despite all the knowledge on things technical, RSS is foreign to them.

    After I show people how it works, they think it’s pretty cool, but who knows if they try it for themselves.

  48. I’m amazed by all the negativity about Alltop. Although I run a travel website and write 2 travel blogs I’m not a techie person.

    I think Alltop is a great resource, you can check out the titles of all the leading blogs in topics which area of interest to you, quickly and easily. Not everyone understands RSS and/or want to subscribe to blogs. Alltop offers a good alfternative.

    I have to admit to some bias as both my travel blogs are listed in Travel Alltop.

    Here’s my post, “Does Alltop sound the death knell for blog subscription or an edn to being b(l)ogged down” (you can see why I’ve used tinyurl:

    http://tinyurl.com/54sezr

  49. I’m included at the alltop-site, but I have a question about it. I think it’s kind of scary what you can do with the RSS here, take other peoples content (though alltop is only showing the headlines so that’s okay), but exploiting what other people do and displaying it on your own site. Isn’t it some kind of danger to that, or what would you say?

  50. Personally, I couldn’t keep up with all the news and research I am interested in through email. I love RSS! I don’t think the problem is fear of technology, but unwillingness to change.

    It took me a while to find a system for managing my feeds and it did require a change to my work habits to accommodate a new tool (e.g. an RSS reader). I’ve been the RSS evangelist in my organization but have had little luck in getting my colleagues to actually use their RSS readers after I set them up.

    In answer to this, my company, Northern Light, has built a business search portal that indexes RSS feeds from several thousand online news sources and industry authority blogs (Try it at http://www.nlsearch.com).

    Business users are familiar with search and understand how to use the results. We hope it will lead to more subscribers for the sources included in the index, as has been the case for the paid content suppliers included in our custom SinglePoint search portals.

  51. My story about how people use RSS and don’t even know it:

    My gf who is pretty blog savvy wasn’t familiar with the term RSS one night after I came home ranting about a debate I had with someone about RSS being a necessity. But then once I explained and was like “picture every live journal blog on your friends list. It takes you 2 hours to get through your friends page. Picture each of their blogs just a subject line and short description. Now add to that every site you go to for news, videos, science etc in the same format and how long it takes you to hit all those sites? Picture them all in one spot in subject format with short descripts. How much faster you can skim content and consume it? You know that orange button every blog has?”

    She then say’s “OH is that how I read all those interesting articles? Did you put them there? I thought they just showed up!”

    So she was using RSS and didn’t know it but knew the icon and format as soon as I described it.

  52. I like email. It’s got a leisurely pace to it, it’s good for filing, it’s easy to forward to friends.

    Just to throw a spanner into the discussion… I use Feedblitz to get my RSS feeds by email. I don’t use a reader at all.

    =) Marc