There’s debate over whether using Real Simple Syndication (RSS) for a business site’s blog or articles is beneficial. Some argue it keeps avid RSS subscribers away from the sites the articles are meant to promote, while others say these feeds do more for business than simply publishing content on a single domain.
Previous action against an app in the iPhone catalog by the New York Times calls us to take another look at the purpose of RSS and whether or not it’s good for business.
RSS is defined as a tool that “republishes” content, but not in the sense of “free” syndication on for-profit sites. RSS allows you to “feed” content from your site in a simplified format so readers can subscribe to the content and read it in a separate environment (usually a newsreader via a browser, through locally installed software, or through an application on a mobile device). While there are some web sites that attempt to completely re-publish articles from RSS feeds, the primary use is for individual subscriptions.
RSS is different than referring links from sites like Facebook. On Facebook, people manually post the links. With RSS, the content is automatically loaded in the subscribers preferred application in real time (or when the subscriber clicks to load current articles). RSS, however, can also be used to auto-publish your own articles to a Facebook profile page (this requires authorization that you own the content).
In June, the New York Times contacted Apple after Steve Jobs showed off a newsreader app that pre-packaged the newspaper’s RSS feed. The reason? The app wasn’t free – it costs $4 – hence it violated the Times’ terms of service, which restricts charging for distribution of their content. Apple immediately removed the app from the catalog, but later reinstated it. The argument was simple: Users themselves can subscribe to a feed without violating terms, and users were paying for the application, not news content.
For years, RSS feeds have been favored by power users and business people because it allows them to subscribe to many news and company sites and peruse headlines and information from one, central location. And while in its earlier stages, the majority of content was strictly text, today most readers also parse images and video/audio linking and integrate social media share icons. It saves a great deal of time, because users don’t have to continuously load dozens of web sites via their browser bookmarks.
Mobile devices have made RSS feeds much more popular. On a smartphone, a user can subscribe to feeds, then navigate them at their leisure – from anywhere. Some applications allow users to categorize feeds based on topics of interest, or “favorite” specific articles for future engagement.
But… Should You Offer an RSS Feed from Your Site?
The primary advantage to offering an RSS feed is readership. RSS Feeds make it easy for anyone to scan articles and posts across hundreds of domains. Thus, you stand to gain more readers. Since more people would be seeing your content, that will result in more “shares” across social media platforms, and thus, additional readers you might have never reached via other marketing or advertising efforts.
Some community-driven sites also push headlines and summaries via RSS feeds. For example, on LinkedIn Groups, an admin can subscribe to an RSS feed that posts content to the groups’ news board. The information fed includes the headline, a summary (if available), and a direct link to the full article (in this case, to your web site).
There is a downside, though, dependent upon how you configure the feed. Ideally, users want to read the entire shebang on their reader or device, but that also means they might never visit your actual web site. Offering up just a headline and summary will stream in some users, but overall readership would drop because it’s inconvenient to launch a browser – especially on a mobile device – to read the rest of the story. Web sites that rely heavily on advertising have struggled with the pros and cons for many years.
A happy medium is presenting entire articles, but with embedded footers that prompt the user to visit your site to make comments, see related articles or share the story. This allows you to continuously brand your site’s offering (products or services), while also promoting community interaction.
Of course, it all really boils down to the content. If you engage people, they’re much more likely to return,and bring their friends with them.