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RSS pushes old concept with new technology

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The Holy Grail of electronic marketing is a way to deliver targeted messages directly to the desktop of a qualified, interested buyer. While e-mail has emerged as a crucial tool for marketers, so-called push technology—best exemplified by the ill-fated Pointcast network—failed miserably and faded into oblivion.

But push may be set for a comeback. Savvy marketers are beginning to tap a promising new one-to-one channel called RSS (Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication, depending on whom you ask). RSS is beginning to draw the attention of the b-to-b marketing community.

What is RSS? It is an XML-formatted version of Web site content to which readers "subscribe," i.e., opt-in. The subscription sends the content to a desktop, where it is viewed with a new class of software application called a news aggregator. The aggregator lets the reader assemble the content into a personalized, multisource news feed.

Typically, an RSS "feed" consists of a headline, brief summary and a link that, when clicked, brings the reader to the content—say a news story or a press release—in its full, HTML-formatted glory.

In many ways, RSS fulfills the promise of push by providing content creators with an affordable way to syndicate their data to readers—recipients who can be current customers or potential prospects.

Thousands of RSS feeds are already available, many created from content derived from increasingly viewed Weblogs.

But recently, corporate giants have begun distributing content via RSS as well, putting this new technology more squarely in the b-to-b marketing mainstream. Some of the big names now using RSS include Apple Computer Inc., Microsoft Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and IBM Corp., as well as b-to-b publishers such as Fawcette Technical Publications, IDG and Ziff Davis Media Inc.

"RSS gives a company an opportunity to communicate directly with its audience," said Tom Murphy, public relations manager for Cape Clear Software Inc., San Mateo, Calif.

Already, Cape Clear’s RSS feeds are among the 20 most popular pages on the Cape Clear corporate Web site, Murphy said. "We don’t have to make an effort to push this information out to people," he added, noting that customers must opt to have the RSS feed sent to them. "It flows out to people under its own momentum, almost with a life of its own sometimes."

The Cape Clear RSS feeds contain the company’s blog content, in which company executives comment on industry developments and describe the Cape Clear solutions.

Companies such as Apple and Cisco have begun to use RSS to deliver corporate press releases, and publications like eWeek and InfoWorld are offering RSS feeds of their content from their home pages.

Dave Winer, CEO of software vendor UserLand Software Inc., Acton, Mass., and co-creator (along with Netscape) of the RSS specification, called the adoption of RSS by companies like Microsoft "a major milestone" in the technology’s move into the mainstream.

The best way to become familiar with RSS may be to experience it hands-on. To read RSS content, you first need a RSS "aggregator." Popular versions include AmphetaDesk, NewzCrawler and NewsGator.

Most aggregators run as stand-alone applications with multiple windowpanes for a list of sources, their feeds and individual RSS items. Some RSS tools even integrate with applications like Microsoft Outlook, which portends a day when individuals may peruse RSS feeds right alongside their e-mail in-box.

Next, you need to find some RSS feeds. Sites offering RSS content typically include a small orange "XML" icon on their pages. Clicking on the icon or cutting and pasting its URL onto your news aggregator usually will subscribe you to the content. Several RSS search engines and directories have emerged, such as Feedster, Syndic8, NewsIsFree or Weblogs.com.

Creating RSS content is a bit trickier. Most popular Weblog tools, such as RadioUserland, Blogger or Moveable Type, will automatically create RSS feeds from the content you post. You can also create your RSS feed by hand, or use one of the Web-based RSS creation tools such as myRSS. Soon, RSS creation probably will be built into a variety of tools, including HTML editors or word processors.

Like HTML and Web pages in the early days, creating RSS today may be a specialist’s art. But RSS may change the e-marketing game in important ways. It is cheaper and avoids the spam problems associated with e-mail newsletters. It is also more personalized, proactive and "viral" than static Web site content.

In the end, RSS and news aggregators look to represent a new end-user "target" platform-like the Web browser and e-mail client-that b-to-b marketers cannot afford to ignore.

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