Surf news websites, particularly those in the technology sector, and sooner or later you will come across a small orange button labelled 'RSS'. What the initials actually stand for has been a source of some debate, but most commentators have now settled on the term 'Really Simple Syndication'.
RSS allows web users to select and filter the information they want to receive from websites. By signing up to a site's RSS service, the user receives updates on subjects he had selected, cutting out the need to visit reams of sites in search of information.
These updates are sent automatically to the user's RSS News Reader, a software program downloaded onto the computer's desktop that acts just like an email inbox. It fills with 'RSS feeds' – or web addresses – on which users click to take them to the relevant internet page.
Some browsers, including Firefox, Opera and Safari for example, have News Reader functionality built in, and Microsoft is building RSS functionality, under the name 'Web Feeds', into the next version of Internet Explorer.
So what does RSS mean in practice? Take a web surfer who is a Chelsea fan, but also interested in rap music, orienteering and the latest in electronic gadgets and boys' toys. Maybe there are three or four sites he regularly goes to for information on each. Perhaps the BBC Sport pages, Guardian Unlimited, the official Chelsea FC site and the Apple portal. If all of those sites offered an RSS feed, the user could add them to his RSS News Reader and get news headlines from each as they are produced. Gone are the days when users would miss something or had to trawl through numerous sites.
If RSS is useful for anyone who uses the web, it has significant implications for PR practitioners and journalists alike. For PROs, RSS offers another channel through which to distribute corporate news, or at least make it available, while for journalists it enables them to select the type of news they want to receive, rather than
having their inboxes bombarded with press releases, some of them relevant, some not. A journalist interested in mobile telephone technology, for example, might subscribe to Microsoft's mobile solutions feed, but not to its SQL Server feed.
Not surprisingly, many journalists, particularly those in the technology sector, are enthusiastic about RSS. Nooked, an Irish company that since the start of the year has developed RSS feeds for more than 2,000 PR agencies and client companies, has collected a number of RSS endorsements on its website, which tell their own story.
Technology journalist Dan Gillmor says: 'Sending marketing messages and newsletters via email has become a fool's errand; the obvious work-around is RSS. I'd much prefer to get public relations material this way.'
Edelman (Los Angeles) senior counsel for online comms Phil Gomes
says: 'The day will come when the online location of a company's RSS feed will be just as much of a PRO's email signature file as his or her email address, home page and telephone number.'
Microsoft technology evangelist Robert Scoble says: 'If you run a marketing site today and you haven't set up an RSS feed you should be fired.'
Charles Arthur, former technology editor at The Independent, and now a freelance journalist specialising in technology and science, has been using RSS for 18 months.
He says he finds it invaluable. 'It means I don't have to bother visiting the individual sites of companies,' he says. 'I can put all the news I want to keep an eye on in a single program, rather than remembering which sites to visit then waiting for them to load.'
Arthur estimates that while at The Indy, he received around 200 press releases a day via email, around one third of which were blocked before they reached his inbox. 'RSS just puts the journalist in control of what he sees,' says Arthur. In an ideal world, PR agencies and in-house PR departments would be busy developing multi-stream RSS feeds so more journalists could make use of it.
One for each client should be a bare minimum, while there could be feeds within feeds to enable journalists to select the subject areas they were interested in. At the time of writing, however, there were very few examples of such sophistication in RSS.
Probably the best example is the BBC, which has a feed for news, and 18 separate feeds for UK News, World News, Technology News, etc. The Sport section is even more impressive. Users can drill down, not only to feeds on individual sports, but on individual football leagues and even teams within each league.
The Beeb launched its first four Beta RSS news feeds in December 2002, adding news feeds one year later and sports feeds in January 2004. 'RSS is part of our public service remit to make our content available in as many ways as we can, so we have always been heavily into syndication,' says BBC syndication product manager Naomi Davis. 'The way our content is structured makes it very easy for us to distribute.'
Bruce Marshall Associates, an agency with offices in London and Wakefield, has developed separate RSS feeds for each of its clients on its site (www.brucemarshallassociates.com). 'Web feeds are an obvious replacement for e-zines in the long term, but for news releases, the technology is not quite there yet to make it work the way the journalists want,' says Bruce Marshall partner Stuart Bruce.
'Ideally, journalists would be able to create customised feeds so they would only get information on the topics of interest to them. We are looking to develop customised feeds as soon as possible,' he adds.
Another agency that has taken the RSS plunge is B2B technology specialist Axicom, which launched RSS feeds for its clients' releases on its site (www.axicom.com) at the beginning of the year. It was done following discussions with journalists, particularly those in the blogging community, which has a natural affinity with RSS.
Axicom chief executive Julian Tanner says the reaction from journalists has been mixed. 'Some journalists see no value in it, others swear blind it's the only way they want to receive communications from us,' he says. 'The more technically aware they are, the more enthusiastically they have responded to it.'
At present, Axicom's feeds are limited to one for all clients globally, or one for the clients in each of the six countries in which the agency operates. Ultimately, however, Tanner says he would like to take it further. 'As we go through the next quarter, it's important that we make feeds available for each client, and also that we get the
segmentation right in terms of the markets we address,' he says.
Axicom's RSS feeds, like many out there, are powered by Nooked (see box), which is riding the wave of the current interest in RSS. Nooked chief executive Fergus Burns says his client list has doubled in the last four months, and estimates the company has now created RSS feeds for 60-70 per cent of PRWeek's Top 100 PR companies.
Burns believes the technology is moving into the mainstream. 'As recently as January of this year, you would have said RSS was the remit of geeks. Now, with the Google sidebar (which gathers content via RSS feeds), Microsoft announcing its support, and Yahoo! embracing RSS, everyone has the potential to consume it. By 2010 I believe anybody with an online presence will have RSS,' he says.
Key to the development of RSS, Burns believes, is the blogging community. Because of the number of blogs out there, the fanatical following that some of them inspire, and the frequency with which they are updated by their authors, there is a natural need for a technology such as RSS which can keep readers informed about updates.
At the same time, such is the influence they wield that bloggers are emerging as a target audience for some companies. They are also, increasingly, demanding RSS feeds, and ignoring those sites that do not provide them.
'There is this evolving market of what you might call the Class A bloggers, people such as Microsoft's Scoburn,' says Burns. 'They are just individual people, but what they are doing amounts to word-of-mouth marketing, so companies are actively looking to target communications at them,' he adds.
Axicom's Tanner has witnessed the same trend at work. 'We are starting to see this alternative channel of communications emerging, where RSS feeds and blogs operate as an alternative to the press release issued by the company,' he says.
'You have some bloggers such as Guy Kewney (www.kewney.com) and Nigel Powell (www.redferret.net) who have a lot of power and influence because their feeds are taken up by journalists. It is probably the biggest change that the PR industry has seen in 100 years.'
Agency Text 100 is developing its own response to the RSS phenomenon, although by taking a slightly different approach.
'You can put RSS news feeds on company or agency sites, but it's the wrong approach, because in doing so you're still trying to replicate the push of press releases, except you have a filter on the news you put out,' says Dr Georg Kolb, Text 100 executive vice-president (global consultancy and practices). 'If you want to make a difference, the best thing is to try and engage directly with your audiences and understand what their experience is and then offer them RSS feeds that speak directly to this.' And Kolb is not talking about press releases.
'Forward-thinking companies will depart from the traditional press release format altogether,' he continues. 'These are just polished marketing documents pushed out in a controlled manner. Today's consumers want something different, a more direct and authentic interaction with you. RSS is not just another distribution channel, it's a conversational tool.'
In this sense, RSS is now in a category alongside blogs, Podcasts and Wikis (a web application that allows users to add and edit content, say on an internet forum). Kolb believes the rise of peer
media demands a wholesale change in the way corporations communicate with their stakeholders.
Of course, such a sea change is not going to happen overnight, especially not if it involves the demise of the press release. A Jupiter Research report published earlier this year found that marketers' understanding of RSS was poor, and it is they, of course, who
control PR budgets.
Similarly, public awareness of RSS is also low. A Nielsen/Netratings survey conducted in August among 1,000 regular blog readers found that 66 per cent did not understand RSS or had never heard of the technology, with a further 23 per cent claiming to understand it, but not use it.
And there is another big worry about RSS. Some think that if you only give journalists what they say they want, they will never stumble across those nuggets they did not even know they were looking for.
Portfolio Communications carried out a survey in July among 134 journalists on the usefulness of different sources of information. Company websites scored highest, with 56 per cent of respondents finding them 'very useful' or 'extremely useful'. Blogs came last with just four per cent, below online press centres (32 per cent) and even exhibitions (20 per cent).
'I think the results show that blogs are in their infancy in the UK,' says Portfolio managing director Mark Westaby.'But I'm sure that figure will be much higher if we run the survey again in 18 months' time.'
A question of timing
There is no doubt that RSS is far from being a must-have for PR companies, but the situation is changing all the time. Tom Murphy, head of PR and community affairs for Microsoft in Ireland,
pioneered the use of RSS feeds in his previous role at Cape Clear Software, which made them available in 2003.
He believes strongly that RSS's time will come eventually. 'It's inevitable that RSS will become part of the way that every company disseminates information,' he explains. 'It's just a question of timing. People think these things will happen suddenly, but they always take longer.
'We are seeing RSS emerge strongly in the technology sector, particularly in the US, but it's a push-pull thing.
People need to want it as much as companies want to provide it, but that will come,' he adds.
Murphy concludes: 'The driver is the fact that journalists are overwhelmed with information and they need a way to cut through it to the things that matter to them – that's what RSS is all about.'
RSS: The agency view
Insight Public Relations (www.insightmkt.com) which has offices in Macclesfield and Heathrow, has been experimenting with RSS for the past seven months.
Ultimately the agency plans to create feeds for all its clients, and within this, feeds on particular product areas. Insight managing director Chris Warham says the agency has learned a lot from the work done so far.
'The most important thing is that it is all very well to create an RSS feed, but the management of it is non-trivial,' he says. 'The client must have the time to make sure it is up to date, and that the right information is being targeted at individual feeds.'
Warham believes the opportunities for companies are enormous. 'The beauty of it is that it is based round XML (a programming language that lets data be shared across the internet) so you can do almost whatever you want. Once a large corporate entity recognises that consumers of information don't want tonnes of things that are not relevant to them, they can use the RSS feeds to create news and information feeds tailored to whatever level they choose.'
Warham says he is determined to drive uptake of the medium. 'PR is all about understanding and awareness between clients and the public. The communications world is changing rapidly and we have to make sure that organisations embrace the latest technologies. It's no different to putting a website up ten years ago.'
RSS for All
In the world of RSS, one name keeps cropping up: Nooked (www.nooked.com). Nooked is the brainchild of self-confessed techie Fergus Burns, who formed the company in January. It provides RSS feeds of varying levels of sophistication, from a free Lite version to Standard, Professional and Enterprise versions, for any firm that wants them.
'I've worked in mark-up language technology all my working life and I saw the benefits of RSS as soon as a I started using it,' says Burns. 'I had seen the likes of Cisco and Cape Clear adopting RSS for marketing and PR and it seemed to me a very sensible application of the technology.'
While it is perhaps too early to say that the rest is history, things are certainly going well for the company, which by mid-September boasted 2,000 clients, eager to get on board the RSS bandwagon.
'The technology sector has taken to it a lot quicker than most others, but then you get people like Merck, a pharmaceutical company, doing it, so it's by no means just a technology thing,' says Burns. 'Then there's the BBC. It's mind-blowing what it is doing.'
Burns says he expects everyone with an online presence to be using RSS by 2010. 'People are still trying to get their heads round it but as an agency, you either embrace it or let another agency develop it and lose business to them. That's the choice.'
Apple was one of the pioneers of RSS feeds, releasing news of the iPod nano and G5 computers to RSS subscribers at the same time as press. It has 34 different RSS feeds just for different information about music downloads for iTunes. A catch-all RSS feed called Apple Hot News gives consumers and journalists the main stories of the day.
Microsoft is understandably a leader in the supply of RSS news feeds, and it is even using them to improve its corporate reputation. It recently launched a feed devoted entirely to explaining the company's efforts to develop what it calls 'trustworthy' software. MSN.com introduced RSS feeds of its news stories in January, and lets browsers search for other feeds.
Hewlett-Packard started using RSS news feeds in January and has issued more than 200 press releases since, including everything from product launches to its quarterly results. It has seven different feeds to which journalists can subscribe: education, healthcare, government, IT services (for news and features), Podcasts and a generic 'newsroom' feed.