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Feeds: New Food for Marketers

Syndication technology is creating a personalized Internet – and advertisers are taking notice.

First, Web browsers brought us one screenful of the Internet at a time. Then search engines made it possible to find whatever we wanted. Now subscription-based “feeds” allow us to pick and choose the content we want – news summaries, podcasts, event calendar updates, photos, video – and sit back while it’s automatically delivered to our homes and offices.

This latest innovation in Web-based technology has burgeoned over the past year, especially in the form of a syndication standard called RSS (Really Simple Syndication). Now, marketers and advertisers are waking up to its possibilities.

Yahoo is experimenting with ways of inserting ads into feeds, which should help businesses see how effective a marketing tool it can be. In November, Yahoo upgraded its Publisher Network so that bloggers and other online publishers could include ads in their feeds. And companies such as FeedBurner and Feedster are tracking the number of people subscribing, reading, and re-syndicating feeds, to give publishers, and ultimately advertisers, information on where their ads are going and how to better target their audiences.

One attraction of RSS ads may be that feed syndication is still in the “early adopter” phase – meaning that feeds’ audience members are not typical Web surfers. For the most part, they have actively set up feed readers and subscriptions – they’ve “raised their hand and said ‘I’m interested’,” as Ben Fox, senior product manager in Yahoo’s search marketing division, puts it. “You know from a marketing standpoint that they’ve invested in their content.”

Yahoo’s RSS ad scheme exploits this fact. For instance, if a blogger writes about digital camera technology and products, and publishes an RSS feed through Yahoo, he or she can send subscribers an ad from Canon with the blog entry’s headline. The blogger earns a bit of cash and Canon gets to target a self-selected niche audience – that’s likely to include people shopping for a camera.

Feeds are chosen by publisher, such as Reuters, or by subject matter, such as Washington politics, so subscribers’ interests are clear to advertisers, explains Feedster president Chris Redlitz. Another advantage to advertising through feeds, both for the subscriber and advertiser, is that feeds can’t be spammed by outsiders, unlike e-mail ads that overwhelm an Inbox, Redlitz says. And since a subscriber doesn’t have to use e-mail to get a feed, there’s less risk to a user’s privacy, he adds.

At this early stage, companies haven’t yet settled on the best way to advertise through feeds. But detailed data about their subscribers could help. FeedBurner has introduced a new technology for publishers to track their feeds, using software that sorts the way people view feeds and follows the content flow when it is redistributed.

Of course this benefits advertisers, too, who want to know whether their ad spending is effective. “Over the past 10 years, people have been able to track site traffic and the paths people take to the site; but being able to track feeds is a whole different model,” says Eric Lunt, chief technology officer for FeedBurner. It’s not just how many people subscribe to feeds, he says, but how many people are repeatedly exposed to the feeds and how many actually read them.

Additionally, the content is sometimes resyndicated – “used in different ways, mashed up, and spliced together,” Lunt says. “A lot of times publishers are happy about that; but other times, they’re not and they want to be aware of it. You as a publisher want to know how your content is being redistributed,” for example, via a social bookmarking service like Delicious or as content in a blog.

Since there are many ways to access feeds, each with important implications for publishers, FeedBurner uses software to track every request for a feed (as of January 1, the company had just over 170,000) and divides them into five categories.

The most common way people read feeds, Lunt says, is on a desktop with a reader that checks for feeds, in some cases up to 24 times a day. In this scenario, a publisher needs to know that its feed is being accessed by one person, albeit 24 times.

The second way to read feeds is through online blog aggregators, such as My Yahoo or Bloglines, which request a feed only once per update cycle – but on behalf of thousands of users. FeedBurner tracks the number of users, not the single request.

The third way is through a Web browser, where a person may see a feed, but not subscribe. FeedBurner also tracks “bots” that crawl the Web and add feeds and other content to search engines’ indexes, without any human actually reading the material. And the final category includes e-mail feeds that are much like newsletters.

Lunt says getting a breakdown of these different types of feeds is important for FeedBurner clients, who have been experimenting with different ways to present feeds to their subscribers, based on the numbers. For instance, the Houston Chronicle has moved toward categorizing its news feeds into topics such as Hurricane Katrina, Lunt says, as opposed to sections, such as business, sports, and national news.

As for tracking what happens to the content after it’s been read, Lunt explains that FeedBurner embeds a transparent picture file the size of a single pixel into the feeds of publishers that pay for the service. Feeburner is notified when a browser makes a request for that tiny image, and the aggregated information is passed on to clients. There is no single way to use this resyndication information, Lunt says: “We’re giving them the tools to tune their content, offer more or less [content], and test effective kinds of monetization.”

As it becomes easier to track the eyeballs of feed subscribers, and especially as feeds become even more pervasive, RSS will become ripe picking for advertisers. Hundreds of new feeds become available every day, and Microsoft has said its new operating system, Vista, will include feed-reading software, giving the masses an easy way to subscribe to content.

Says Troy Young, the “chief experience architect” at Organic, a digital marketing agency in San Francisco: “I think [feed advertising] absolutely will be huge.”

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