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Finding revenue from RSS

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It's hard to visit a business or trade press Web site these days and not see an increasingly familiar orange button offering a subscription to an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) news feed. ¶ But for business publishers, the fast-moving RSS story has moved from, "RSS, what's that?" to "RSS, how do we make money from it?" Publishers ranging from tech titles like eWeek.com and Network World Fusion to The New York Times and Reuters and even more mainstream trade publishers such as Thomas Publishing Co. (which was to publish its first RSS rate card Nov. 1) have jumped on the RSS bandwagon.

At one level, the quick adoption of the technology by publishers isn't difficult to understand. The cost to add RSS is minimal, typically a bit of developer time to create new XML-based content templates.

Because of that, RSS content is exploding. While it is difficult to put a number to the total number of RSS feeds, one stat, from search engine Technorati and blog ad vendor Pheedo, puts the number at more than 3 million feeds. The same research puts the number of potential RSS ad impressions at about 77 million today, growing to more than 1.2 billion by 2006.

But even as such feeds become common, business publishers are grappling with the more fundamental question: how to monetize RSS, or at a minimum, how not to have it undercut more profitable parts of the business such as Web and newsletter advertising.

"This is a whole new market really," said Charlie Tillinghast, general manager-publisher of MSNBC.com, which began offering its first RSS feeds in mid-October. "These are high-news-consumption readers, so we need to stay with them and match their consumption habits. We don't view [RSS] as a threat to our other products, but we also want to make sure we don't leave our business model behind."

In many b-to-b sectors, trade publishers simply aren't seeing demand for RSS yet from their readers. "Right now, adoption is low among our readers. We're not yet even in the early adopter phase," said Tom Cintorino, VP-digital media for PennWell Corp., which is experimenting with RSS on several products. "Publishers today are very opportunity-driven. Newsletters, for instance, were adopted much more quickly than RSS because there was content there ready to be delivered and the advertising model was very clear."

For the uninitiated, RSS is an XML-formatted version of Web site (often Weblog) content to which readers can "subscribe." By subscribing, the content is automatically pulled down to the reader's desktop, where it is viewed in a new kind of software application called a news aggregator or reader.

But it's this very structure that is a challenge for publishers. RSS users "experience" content on their own terms, within their news reader, not on the publisher's own Web site. These readers therefore bypass revenue-generating products, including banner ads, newsletter sponsorships and on-site interactive and research tools.

"The great thing about RSS is the consumer is in control," said Bill Flitter, VP-marketing of RSS ad vendor Pheedo. "If they feel the noise-to-value ratio is out of proportion, they will simply vote with their mouse and unsubscribe. That causes publishers to be very aware of the RSS they are delivering to consumers."

One common solution is to use RSS feeds to pull readers back to a publisher's Web site by offering only heads, blurbs and links within the feed. MSNBC's new feeds, for instance, take that approach. "We send out headlines and when they click on them, they come into an area we control," said Tillinghast, adding that another option-still under consideration-would be to deliver complete stories, but monetize them by delivering ads within such RSS feeds as well.

However, because RSS users typically rely on the technology to consume as much information as quickly as possible, offering such limited content may have limited appeal. RSS users are likewise less tolerant of ads within RSS. Taken together, this puts business publishers with an eye on the bottom line in a tough spot.

That said, Pheedo's Flitter and other RSS experts believe ads can work within RSS feeds, if executed properly. "Yes, there is a general resistance to ads in feeds," said Flitter. "However, most people know it is a matter of time before it will happen."

A handful of publishers is out front experimenting with RSS- delivered ads. Thomas Industrial Network site news.thomasnet.com offers more than 50 RSS feeds organized by industrial product category, according to Paul Gerbino, publisher of Thomas' Product News Network. The site sends out headlines and 450-word blurbs via RSS.

Up to now, the business model has been to turn RSS readers into Web site visitors-about 10% of the site's monthly page views (about 100,000 page views) are driven by the RSS feeds, said Gerbino. But beginning this month, the site is adding text-based ads to the RSS feeds for the first time. "My attitude," Gergino said, "is that users want information in the format they want, when they want it. As publishers, we have to respond to that while also providing channels to come back to our sites."

Elsewhere, InfoWorld.com earlier this year reported that its top RSS feed page on its Web site was receiving more total visits than its home page-an eye-catching turn of events. Since disclosing that progress earlier this year, "we've spent less time developing new feeds and more time working out how the advertising model would work, and building better relationships with advertisers to get them to understand what we're trying to do," said Matt McAlister, InfoWorld.com VP-general manager.

InfoWorld's experiments weren't always successful. It began by including ads as individual items within its RSS feeds, but readers pushed back right away, McAlister said. InfoWorld then settled on appending a brief but clearly marked text ad and link to the end of every fifth RSS post. Up to now, it's been able to sell about 50% to 75% of its available RSS inventory; it then backfills the rest with targeted text ads from ad vendor IndustryBrains.

While declining to name the advertisers, McAlister shared the results of two recent RSS campaigns. The first delivered 14,000 impressions and 115 clicks and ran in several of its vertical RSS feeds, including Security, Storage and Wireless. The second delivered 133,000 impressions and 635 clicks and ran in its top news feed. InfoWorld charges a $100 CPM for ads on targeted RSS feeds and an $80 CPM for ads on non-targeted feeds (such as top news feed). While it's still early, "the numbers are starting to work," McAlister said.

In another experiment, this time with IDG Web property The Industry Standard, McAlister delivered full-text editorial content (rather than just heads and blurbs) and a 160 x 600 graphical ad unit. He called the results "encouraging," noting that readers didn't complain and that the click-through rate on the ad unit reached more than 0.5%.

Among the challenges yet to be overcome, RSS experts say: better tracking technology for measuring RSS subscriptions and impressions; standard RSS ad units such as emerged on the Web and in newsletters; advances in RSS readers to better handle HTML-based ads; and perhaps most important, implicit "agreement" with readers on the right trade-off of editorial and advertising in RSS feeds.

Indeed, although RSS-based advertising represents well less than 5% of InfoWorld revenues today, McAlister envisions it passing that marker in due time. Beyond that, "it's a great time to be experimenting" with what looks sure to become an important new medium, he said. M

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