Feeds: Getting Pretty Mainstream

David Chief, via Flickr (CC license)
How many people use feeds? Probably a whole lot more than you think.

In my Aug. 21 post, It’s not about your site anymore, I talked about how web sites are becoming less important for online content distribution as RSS feeds (with their many uses) are enjoying increasingly mainstream usage.

Basically, the trend is that more people are more interested in getting the content they want delivered to them wherever they prefer to be, rather than having to make a special “trip” online to someone’s site. And they’re using lots of popular tools to do just that.

Reader Steve Sergeant (of The Wildebeat, a great podcast) responded with a perspective I’ve heard often. He said:

“I agree that this is true for the bleeding-edge, early adopters, among which I count myself. …But in my experience, the average news consumer and person with a non-media job often has no idea what an RSS reader or aggregator is. Sure, an adventuresome few have discovered iTunes for podcasts or some server-side aggregator, like My Yahoo.”

While it may be true that most net users aren’t yet using feeds (or perhaps most of them are, I just haven’t found current statistics on that), earlier research and current trends indicate that feeds may have already grown far more popular than conventional wisdom might lead us to assume.

Furthermore, I think general ignorance of the key role that feeds play in supporting many of today’s most popular online-media services and experiences may be causing significant harm — especially to journalism, and thus to democracy and other forms of self-determination.

Sounds extreme, I know. Hear me out…

Back in 2005, just a couple of years after RSS feeds hit the online media scene, Neilsen Media Research published this study indicating that “11 % of weblog readers, blog site visitors who claim to read blogs regularly or occasionally, use RSS to sort through the increasing number of blogs available.”

OK, blogs were getting pretty popular in 2005, so 11% of blog readers in that year is not an insignificant number. Now, keep in mind, Nielsen’s survey probably drastically underestimated feed use because it was so poorly worded. Here’s what they asked:

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Notice that they only asked about feeds from blogs — yet even in 2005 all sorts of sites (especially news and sports sites) had begun publishing feeds. So everyone who, say, subscribed to feeds from washingtonpost.com would have been missed by this survey.

Another 2005 RSS usage statistic came from the Pew Internet & American Life Project: “6 million Americans get news and information fed to them through RSS aggregators” — about 2% of the total US population at the time, and about 3% of the 2005 estimated population of US net users.

Such small percentages do indeed represent “bleeding edge” early adopter usage, I think. Still they’re pretty respectable, considering that widespread publication of RSS feeds only really started around 2002 or 2003.

Today’s tools are much less geeky

Feed readers used to be rather geeky and clunky. Also, it wasn’t always easy to figure out which sites had feeds, and how to subscribe to them. These days, lots of people are using feeds and they don’t even know it! Nor should they — feeds have been too geeky for too long.

According to Feedburner’s Feb. 22, 2007 stats, the most common tools (by far) that people use to subscribe to feeds are MyYahoo, Google Reader, and iGoogle personalized home page. None of those tools say “RSS” prominently — they appear to shy away from that geeky acronym which has always been a needless barrier to popular adoption. For feed subscriptions, MyYahoo refers to “add content;” iGoogle says “add stuff;” and Google reader says “add subscription.” Those phrases all really mean “subscribe to a feed.”

Also, popular social networking services like Facebook and MySpace rely on feeds. Ever wonder how you get those updates on your Facebook page about your Facebook friends? You’re actually subscribed to their feeds, which syndicate their content to your Facebook page.

And finally, services like Feedblitz and Rmail syndicate feed content as e-mail alerts. So, for instance, everyone who’s getting e-mail alerts from my blog, Contentious.com, are actually reading my feed! You’re just using your e-mail client as a feed reader. Now, e-mail is not a great tool for managing and reading feeds, but it’s a start.

…So yeah, I think it’s extremely likely that:

  • Feed usage has shot up dramatically since 2005.
  • A lot of people (maybe even most) who are using feeds don’t know it because the readers and subscription mechanisms are far less geeky and more diverse.
  • Feeds have now become pretty damn mainstream for net users, primarily because of the flexible, customized distribution options they support.

Given that, why does the “bleeding edge” reputation of feeds linger? I suspect that’s because feeds support so many popular services but rarely get the credit for it. Normally I’d say that’s fine — generally the geeky details of online tools matter less than how people use them, and to what end.

But in this case, I suspect that widespread ignorance about feeds, and lack of current research on the subject, is causing harm.

Specifically, in my field (journalism) I’m seeing news organizations crumble because they aren’t adapting their business models fast enough to the changing media landscape. Good reporters are getting laid off, and important news is going unreported, in part because news organizations are clinging to ineffective strategies like banner ads and partial-text feeds — which depend on people coming to your site in order for you to make money — rather than finding ways (like feed advertising and improving search visibility through full-text feeds) to make money in a more distributed, customized media environment.

Business basics, folks: You’ve gotta go where your customers and community are.

I dearly treasure journalism and the role it plays in a free society. Without good journalism, it’s hard to get the information we need to make decisions on our own behalf. It’s hard to judge where the collective good really lies. But journalism (at least on the scale and consistency that our large, complex society requires) needs a supporting business structure. That doesn’t mean that huge news organizations must survive or we’re all doomed. But it does mean that (regardless of news org size) the business model supporting journalism must be realistic and viable in the current environment.

That’s why I’m so concerned about ignorance about feeds, and persistent loyalty to boneheaded online-media business strategies, especially among media professionals. That’s why I criticized Freakanomics and the New York Times so strongly recently, in a venue popular with professional journalists. I’m not just getting geeky; I’m talking about the survival of journalism. I’m talking about continued access to information and analysis we need in order to get by well as individuals and as a society.

I’d really, really love to see some more current research on feed adoption rates — especially including under-the-radar options like feed-based services in social networking sites, personalized home pages, and even e-mail syndication.

I’d also like to see better information about feed-based advertising and other business models that make money through content distribution. Seriously, when I recently read this from Freakanomics’ Stephen Dubner:

“The NYT and its advertisers aren’t crazy about [offering full-text feeds]. Why? This is the fundamental point: Many advertisers do not value feed readers as much as they value site readers, since they believe that feed readers are far harder to measure and track.”

…scalding tea shot out through my nose. Such willful ignorance is terribly discouraging to anyone who cares about the survival of journalism. Rather than cling to a business model (banner ads on web pages) that doesn’t really work (and don’t think the advertisers who pay the bills don’t know that), try something different! Experiment! And give your experiment a serious try for enough time to gauge its true effects.

OK, that’s enough for now. I’ll have more to say on this later, no doubt. But in the meantime, what do you think about what I’ve just said? Am I missing something important? Please comment below.

5 thoughts on Feeds: Getting Pretty Mainstream

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  2. I have recently started doing a talk to local business network groups about the benefits of RSS. In fact we are making RSS a core aspect of our business. We are not trying to cram the term RSS down people’s throats however. I hate the term. people laugh when I tell them it stands for Really Simple Syndication but when I tell them it will give potential customers and site visitors a way for the site to come to them instead of vice versa they perk up and listen. I also explain RSS is not just about blogging but also podcasting, calendars, prices lists, press releases, etc.

  3. Thanks, Patrick.

    You wrote: “People laugh when I tell them it stands for Really Simple Syndication”

    LOL, yeah, someone once told me “If it’s so damn simple why does it need that stupid acronym?”

    You continued: “…but when I tell them it will give potential customers and site visitors a way for the site to come to them instead of vice versa they perk up and listen. I also explain RSS is not just about blogging but also podcasting, calendars, prices lists, press releases, etc.”

    That’s a really great communication strategy. what I’m curious about is, does that explanation really help them “get” feeds & how they can benefit from using them or advertising on them, or do they require further education.

    In your experience, what really seems to help make it click for them to the point that they’ll do somethign about it?

    – Amy Gahran

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