Tapping the Feed: In Search of an RSS Money Trail

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Paying for Feed
Understanding who is using your feed, and where and how, will also be critical to determining whether the other great content revenue model—subscription—has a place in RSS. For instance, Technorati users can turn any search of the blogosphere into a "watchlist"—an automated system that polls the search engine regularly for a term and turns the results into a custom RSS feed of fresh references to which a user can subscribe. In the hands of corporate PR people and marketers this becomes enormously valuable business intelligence, which, for now, is free. According to Sifry, about 30,000 such watchlists have been created thus far, mainly by marketers who want to monitor their company's brand, product mentions, and competitor mentions among the millions of bloggers Technorati indexes. Recognizing how RSS can remix the blogosphere into highly lucrative competitive intelligence for companies, Technorati will be launching a fee-based premium version of the service in the first quarter of 2005.

The Technorati plan exhibits why the subscription model may work for RSS where it has failed for so many email and Web publishers; the value add for this platform is clear and demonstrable. Because users can pull RSS feeds to themselves anonymously, many devotees laud it as a spam-free channel. The feeds are highly customizable and easily accessible from multiple entryways, even mobile access. But most of all, this method of personalized syndication is an enormous time saver, allowing people to aggregate only the flows of information that are important to them. Actionable information plus convenience is a formula that usually adds up to getting even online users to pay for their content.

The first place that many smart publishers look for content subscribers is the enterprise. While few companies are speaking publicly about the model, feed aggregators and RSS reader software makers appear to be exploring the prospect of providing fee-based bundles of RSS content into company intranets and enterprise portals. "You will see companies like Factiva make a big push in that area," predicts Ross Mayfield, CEO of SocialText, which provides blogging and other workspace solutions to the enterprise. As well, consulting and research firms will be able to create highly customized RSS feeds of their analyst's blogged commentary for a fee to customers. "In the end, what you will have are private, authenticated feeds that are valuable for the users," says Mayfield.

And then there is the more familiar kind of content syndication into the enterprise, using RSS to resell premium business information to executives and companies. A version of NewsGator that integrates with Microsoft Outlook sells very well already with corporate clients, and the company is rumored to be planning fee-based feeds for this sector. "I can tell you the enterprise is a very interesting area to us," admits Greg Reinacker, president of NewsGator. "We can't go into details." So far, the major RSS aggregators and service providers do not seem to be looking at the massive library market, but Sifry says he is willing to consider site license deals for both businesses and libraries.

But Reinacker will go into detail about the new premium service he launched last year, which bundles content from eight publishers, including McAllister's InfoWorld and comics like Doonesbury from Ucomics, for $5.95 to $49.95 a month. Publishers get a revenue share based on the number of subscribers who take their feed. "It's going well," says Reinacker. "We have a lot of customers who are really enthusiastic about it." NewsGator Premium wisely leverages the portability of RSS as an important value add; it lets customers parse and redirect their feeds to an email client, a cell phone, or even a TV (via a Media Center PC). RSS is about saving time and pulling to yourself (rather than traveling to) the information you really need. The very nature of the RSS platform gives it a service element that many users recognize as valuable. But even Reinacker readily admits that everyone in this space is in the early lab tests of RSS revenue models like subscriptions, with some feeds doing very well and others, not. "We're figuring out that model and if it makes sense to help people monetize their content in this way."

The Price of Influence
Optimism about tapping the RSS feed for revenue seems to be linked directly to one's attitude toward the future influence of the platform itself. For true believers, RSS, along with the blogs that use them so extensively for distribution, represents a fundamentally different way of publishing and consuming information. People are now choosing and pulling to themselves only the information they really want, but they are also recombining that information in their own blogs of links and RSS feeds for others to pull and further remix. This user-centric medium, where individual opinions can reverberate through links and feeds into large-scale influence, may require radically different marketing models and even metrics. "Everyone can have a site now," says Mayfield, "and not just for transactions but as influencers of where people spend their attention. That in itself is the reason why there is an opportunity for a new metric."

Mayfield thinks that blogs and RSS are undervalued as media properties, that we need an ad economy to compensate the many citizen publishers that now have inordinate influence across this new mediasphere. He envisions a "transitive advertising" model in which bloggers insert the ads they actually like into their own feeds to like-minded fellow-influencers. These feed readers/makers, might in turn cut and paste it into their own feeds … and so on and so on.

Rather than publish ads onto specific sites, RSS marketers could simply release ads wild into the blogosphere, perhaps on central servers or select "seed" sites and feeds where bloggers would pick up the ones they liked. Embedded scripts could track who has placed the ads where, which feeds or blogs are most responsible for clickthroughs and pass-alongs. Feeds and blogs throughout the chain would be paid on a "cost per influence" basis. This is an economy that would compensate a feed for its influence as much as for direct clickthroughs. "I don't have very high traffic logs," says Mayfield, who is widely read and quoted in the industry. "Instead what I have is people who read my blog and have higher than normal traffic. It is about where I am on the network, how influential I would be."

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