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In an article about RSS earlier this week I explained that there is no single rule of thumb when it comes to your RSS strategy.
A number of experts have suggested that the only sensible way to embrace RSS as an organisation is to launch full-text feeds, allowing RSS subscribers to read the whole story (or other message) within their RSS feed reader.
Yes, full-text is the first rule of RSS. But rules are there to be broken. Full-text simply doesn’t work for everybody, for a number of reasons.
Steve Rubel, who has an excellent blog called Micropersuasion, is one such expert. In an article in this week’s Advertising Age he suggests that 'media owners should lock lips with full-feed’, because that’s what RSS users want.
Steve says “failing to go full-text could have long-term ramifications”. Hmmm.
My take on this is that “failing to go partial-text could have longer-term ramifications”.
The full-text argument tends to be that RSS readers are more savvy and don’t want interruption, so they won’t click through to websites. And if you want to engage these people you need to do it on their terms, by providing the full-text in a feed.
But more than this, say the full-text evangelists, publishers shouldn’t force readers to visit their websites on concerns about lost ad revenue. After all, publishers can optimise their RSS feeds with a dollop of Adsense and a smattering of Pheedo, making up for any lost revenue from a fall in page impressions. Yup, feeds can have ads too.
Does this theory hold water? Can you monetise feeds in this way? Well, yes you can. But as I’ll explain, it isn’t just about short-term monetisation. Publishers tend to grab the lowest hanging fruit, when really they need to start seriously thinking about building ladders to climb higher up into the fruit tree.
Pheedo, an RSS advertising network, recently published a guide to RSS metrics. It found that, on average, one ad per feed generates a clickthrough rate of 1.75%. Not bad, but it is going to be enough for your business? You also need to think about whether savvy RSS subscribers really want to see feeds cluttered with advertising? And if they can tolerate advertising then surely they’ll tolerate clicking through to your website?
The Pheedo study (PDF) also looked at full-text vs partial-text clickthrough rates. It found that, on average, full-text feeds generate a 10% CTR, while partial-text is marginally higher at 12%. Yet the CTR range for full-text fluctuated between 5% and 15%, while partial-text is in some cases as high at 55% (and as low as 2%).
So Partial-text does generate more traffic for your website, although maybe not as much as you’d think. Get it right though, and you can achieve five times more visits than the average full-text feed will generate. Some 84% of feeds sampled for the Pheedo report were partial-text. Hence the lobbying for full-text, notably among early-adopters.
When simplified, this ‘full vs partial’ argument boils down to two things:
1. Revenue. Advertising revenue will fall if we opt for full-text feeds, right? Not necessarily, is Steve's argument.
2. Control. Allowing readers to consume content on their terms. There’s some sort of trade-off between these two points.
But I think there are another four points to consider, the first three being loosely related…
3. Analytics. Can web publishers monitor and measure RSS subscriber activity, and the usage of feeds (beyond simply seeing how many subscribers they have)? Can they know how many RSS subscribers have opened, or read a story? They can monitor CTR, sure, but if 9 out of 10 readers don’t click through, then what else can you find out about how they use your feed?
4. Interaction. Let’s put ad revenues and page impressions aside for one minute (I wish Big Media would). What is the opportunity cost of not having RSS subscribers visit your website? Aside from a possible fall in page impressions, there are other factors. What can you learn from your users, when they visit? And what can’t you learn if you leave them to consume your content in their RSS reader?
5. Myopia. We see publishers still fretting about page impressions. They continue to serve up all manner of rubbish advertising, rubbish formats, terrible targeting. Any old ad will do. Interruption and intrusion still reigns. Sooner or later The Gods of Web Analytics will shine a bright light from above, and lo, publishers will understand the value of monitoring and tracking user behaviour. And making sense of it all. When there’s enough knowledge they’ll be able to improve targeting for advertisers, increasing ad rates and response rates in the process. Better segmentation, better relevancy, happier advertisers, higher revenues. You need interaction before any of this is possible.
6. The Dark Side. Finally, publishers also need to think about the dangers of providing full-text feeds in an age of spam blogs. These sites are automated and simply scour RSS feeds for contextual content to republish on themed sites, purely to generate Adsense revenue. This is a big problem, and something that makes you understand why publishers like to retain control over their assets (content).
The takeaway here is that this isn't just about ad revenues, nor is it just about user experience. It is also about analytics and interaction, which are arguably more important for understanding customer behaviour and improving your business over the long-term.