The Challenge of RSS Evangelism

I love being an RSS evangelist. I tell everyone I know why RSS feeds are so cool. They think I’m a geek. I don’t care, they’ll thank me for it later.

(Read my RSS feed backgrounder.)

But I’ll admit it… I get so frustrated trying to explain to people why I think RSS feeds are so cool and important – because most people don’t know what the heck they are. It’s kind of like explaining the Web in 1992, I guess. Unless you’re into weblogs, chances are you probably haven’t heard of RSS.

I’m forever trying to bridge this knowledge gap, but that’s hard when RSS feeds are still so clunky to learn to use compared to the Web and e-mail.

Here’s what I mean:

Problem #1: Yet another piece of software is needed. Right now, you must get and install feed reader software in order to subscribe to and read RSS feeds. Most people (even tech-friendly people) loathe having to install yet another application.

Solution: Browser integration. Whenever the major Web browsers (Microsoft, AOL, Netscape, etc.) finally get around to integrating feed readers into their basic browser, I think RSS will really take off at that point. OR: Some smart critter could develop a third-party plug in (along the lines of the Google toolbar). OR: Some smart developer could create a stand-alone application that doesn’t force you to look at the ugly XML code – just right-click on the button to subscribe (like Newsgator does, see below).

Problem #2: Cryptic buttons I’ve grown to despise those tiny XML and RSS buttons. Unless you already know what an RSS feed is, why would you click on one of those?

Suggestion: Don’t expect that everyone knows what an RSS feed is and how to use it. I wish more online publishers who offer RSS feeds would go to the trouble of adding even a little bit of text for clarification, like “Get our news without clogging your e-mail in-box.” Or maybe even a publish a brief “What is RSS?” page on your site.

On my home page, I’ve simply noted “Get CONTENTIOUS by RSS feed” – a brief but apparently effective bit of implied information.

Problem #3: Scary-looking code. Right now, if you click on one of those cryptic little orange XML buttons, you get what looks like, to most people, utter garbage. Seriously – someone who doesn’t know what RSS is would think they just did something very, very wrong!

One solution: In lieu of making the technical process of subscribing to an RSS feed less ugly, I’ve taken the approach of including a visible comment at the top of the XML file for my RSS feed. This should at least be some help for RSS newbies, and the XML still validates. (More on how to comment in XML.)

Another solution: The feed reader NewsGator, which integrates with MS Outlook, allows you to simply right-click on an XML or RSS button that links to a feed page. One of the options on the drop-down menu that pops up is “Subscribe in Newsgator.” That’s certainly less intimidating than looking at ugly XML code. Hopefully, when somebody finally integrates a feed reader into a major Web browser, subscribing to feeds will be at least that easy.

6 thoughts on The Challenge of RSS Evangelism

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  1. Well, if RSS is like web in ’93 (when I started), and it does seem that way, it is awfully early to expect it to get to the level of mass popularity that did not happen for anorher 5 years. Tools will eveolve, people will latch on if it serves a purpose for them…

    Also, check out the free web aggregator from Bloglines

    which has the nifty feature of being able to publish your feed collection as publicly viewable (e.g. to share with others)

  2. It’s been several months since I announced an RSS version of my free weekly “Surfing the Net with Kids” newsletter. I made the announcement with an explanation of RSS, and links to a variety of readers.

    Since that time, however, whenever my email newsletter subscribers complain about not receiving their weekly edition, I point them directly to Bloglines, with a subscribe button on my site. This AVOIDS three roadblocks that have been RSS barriers: separate software, complexity, and cost.

    I need to keep it simple for my non-techie audience, and Bloglines accomplishes that.

    You can read my original RSS explanation here:

  3. In regard to Barry Parr’s comment above:

    Yes, absolutely right, Barry. When I read your comment, my software-developer husband and I were both nodding our heads ruefully. I do remember Communicator …although I try not to…

    Still, though, the obstacle for an awful lot of Net users is having to download and install yet another piece of software — not matter how simple, reliable, user-friendly, and useful that software is!

    I know, it’s enough to drive a developer crazy. But it’s hard to imagine all those AOLers out there grabbing their own feed-reader application and installing it. Should they? Certainly. Will they? Probably not, IMHO.

    Anyway, looks like there’s zero movement from Microsoft in terms of adding this or any other useful features to Explorer. (Intrepid developers, where are you? We need you…..)

    – Thanks,

    Amy Gahran

  4. In reply to Gay Gilmore’s comment above (which is a bit of a commercial announcement, but I’ll let that slide because it is relevant here) — yes, that does sound like an interesting product, I would like to test it.

    However, you might want to reconsider describing useful features in language like, “We support autodiscovery (like most aggregators), so you can install a little bookmarklet in your Links bar and when you are on a blog you like, you just click it and you will be subscribed (without having to find or understand the rss button or see the scary code).”

    ….While that sounds intriguing, it’s geeky enough to alienate the very RSS newbies you probably want to court.

    Interesting that you’re planning to sell this as an annual subscription service, rather than sell it as a more conventional software product. That’s an intriguing business model. How do you justify it?

    – Thanks,

    Amy Gahran

  5. I don’t think having a separate application is necessarily a bad thing. The late, unlamented Netscape Communicator is a good example of a do-everything browser that did everything badly. There’s nothing like focus to bring out developers’ creativity. I couldn’t give up NetNewswire any more than I would give up my email client.

    Having said that, you’re dead right that RSS couldn’t be more opaque to 90% of Web users. I think making it easier for RSS readers to discover feeds and for browsers to communicate with standalone readers is a better approach.

  6. Why wait for the browser to build it, use our web-based aggregator (added advantage, access from anywhere, not just the machine you have it installed on): MyWireService . We support autodiscovery (like most aggregators), so you can install a little bookmarklet in your Links bar and when you are on a blog you like, you just click it and you will be subscribed (without having to find or understand the rss button or see the scary code). We’re in beta testings, we’d love to hear what you think.