Some strong supporters of the huge potential of RSS in marketing, like my friend Rok Hrastnik of MarketingStudies.net, have been pretty clear about their point of view on these issues. One of Rok's most recent articles is even entitled: "RSS Advertising is Here, Whether You Like it Or Not".
But is it really so?
"The internet has been flooded for the past few days with news and debates concerning advertising in RSS feeds, especially in consequence to Google testing AdSense ads in RSS feeds.
RSS is a content delivery channel, and us marketers have the tendency to use every such channel to do what we are doing: market.
End-users want free content, which can, on the long-term, only be provided if there is some compensation involved for the publisher. RSS advertising makes this possible, helping publishers generate additional revenues and thus also provide better and more high-quality and high-frequency content."
On the other hand, Dave Winer, by many considered the father of RSS, has been very vocal about the negative side of RSS advertising, and has been asking publishers to reconsider such approach. He writes:
"Advertising in RSS is just starting now, for all practical purposes. If we wanted to, as an industry, reject the idea, we could, by asking the people who create the software to add a feature that strips out all ads. Make it default to on. Then, that would force the advertisers, if they want to speak to us, to do so respectfully, by our choice.
Create feeds of commercial information that we might be interested in, and if we are, we'll subscribe. If not, we won't."
But Rok points intelligently to ClickZ own article on RSS advertising as it presents a good case of why RSS advertising may not be in the DNA of RSS.
"From a marketing strategy standpoint, RSS's ascendancy is just another indication the world always seems to find a way to route around advertising whenever it has a chance.
Consumers crave control over their media and are flocking to technologies that provide that control.
RSS advertising is probably an excellent idea. But we can't forget if we abuse the channel into consumers' browsers, they can do what they've always done with TV: switch the channel.
When considering new ways to reach consumers, we can't ignore the fact that while we weren't looking, they seized control."
Where does the truth stand?
Here is my take on it:
1) This is not TV or radio: Users are in control
Users are now in control, whether you like it or not. They have an abundance of resources to choose from and are in control of the news feed channels, research and entertainment content that they want to subscribe to or see.
2) Therefore, give users choices: the more, the better
With ads or without ads should be something that the user decides about and NOT something you sneak in while they are not looking. Soon high-quality RSS readers and aggregators will be able to strip-off ads from any RSS feed transparently, just like TiVO-like hardware devices can.
3) Be tranparent
Let users know from the very beginning what you are going to provide to them in your RSS feeds and whether or not ads are included. The more transparent and honest, the more credible your image to your readers, the greater their loyalty and trust over time.
4) Separate ads from traditional content: treat ads as a content category
In a pull ecosystem, where end users can seek out the specific information and content they want at any time, ads, should be treated as a new, additional, distinct information/content category that can have its own space and audience. Advertising doesn't need to intrude into other content to be able to achieve its goals. Actually, advertising may be able to become much more cost-effective and profitable once it is treated as a pull-driven information mechanism instead of megaphone for screaming out louder than everyon else. Build RSS ad-feeds on specific topics, suggesting products and services in areas I may be interested into.
5) Ads in RSS work only until readers learn and see other options
Pushing unrequested content (ads) through a channel for marketing purposes works only until readers can't appreciate the differences and options newly available to them.
6) Ads are not the only way to monetize this new content delivery channel.
Stop viewing RSS, or any other new thing that comes around just as a new cash-cow: understand the medium first and see what are the traits and characteristics that make it unique. Leveraging them is the key to success. for one, RSS feeds can easily be made into high-quality fee-based channels, which, if contained truly unique and valuable content in specific niche markets, would automatically find multiple unique loyal subscribers. RSS feeds can also be easily sponsored without needing to introduce unrequested content within the feed itself.
7) In RSS the value it's not in the quantity: it's in the timeliness and in the quality (selection).
Readers, like me and you, do not want as much content as possible in their RSS feeds. They want few, high quality gems that keep them updated and well informed on their selected topics of interest.
If notwithstanding the above, you are already set and decided on introducing ads inside your RSS feeds here is my humble suggestion, built for success over time, and for gaining credibility and authority over the quick immediate buck:
a) Keep those ads as separate from your content items as possible. Group them at the beginning or at the end. Don't spread them around every so few posts.
b) Make sure those ads are as focused and on theme with the content published as possible. If they are not, they are only adding more clutter and distraction to the reader, while lowering the level of your credibility and trust.
Nonetheless the above and due to the vast diversity of people preferences, familiarity with the Internet, habits and in consuming content, I am also expecting that many a publisher will actually make money by introducing ads inside RSS feeds.
Personally I see RSS as a seeder, a bridge, is a promotion channel for the publisher and its greater content opportunities and while I concur in anticipating that many RSS publishers will rush to introduce ads in their RSS feeds, I sincerely don't think that this is the best way to use this user-centered communication channel. I actually think this approach goes opposite to its nature.
So, while there will be no police to give tickets out to those who will be adopting this road, I am for now, not inclined to consider ads inside RSS feeds as something that I aspire to use as a publisher, or desire to see in quantity as an avid RSS reader.
Unless you understand RSS "pull" nature, and what this means in terms of the effectiveness and appropriateness of advertising as we know it as a marketing channel within it, you may be missing on RSS biggest potential.
Is the Web like TV?
Are news online read like a newspaper?
Is the attitude and posture of individuals watching TV the same as those searching Google?
I can only re-state the obvious: Unless you see the deep difference between RSS "pull" and the traditional "push" advertising approaches used in traditional media by radio, television, print, you cannot truly leverage the communication, marketing and advertising potential that all the new Internet-based pull channels can and will provide.
What do you think?