RSS transcends the clutter of the inbox

The e-mail inbox, once a place of communications productivity, is now a cluttered confluence of spam, raunchy forwards from juvenile friends, personal correspondence, and, finally, the newsletters that users once found indispensable.

The e-mail inbox, once a place of communications productivity, is now a cluttered confluence of spam, raunchy forwards from juvenile friends, personal correspondence, and, finally, the newsletters that users once found indispensable.

Websites are no better. There's too many of them, and they never seem to be updated in the thirteen neurotic seconds we wait before reloading the page.

The deluge of information pushed in our inboxes and swirling on countless URLs has gotten too cumbersome to handle, and an old-to-some, new-to-most technology, RSS, is getting its moment in the sun as the IT product for productivity.

RSS, which stands for real simple syndication, has begun to extend past early adopters. The essence of RSS is that it brings websites to the user, who otherwise has to chase the website. In order to enable this, you need the website that you wish to view to provide RSS feeds and a piece of software that can read those feeds. When a website is updated, you are sent an announcement. Sometime you can read the entire article in the "reader;" sometimes you have to follow a link to the website. The feed reader usually stays hidden unless you call it up. (For simplicity's sake, RSS will refer to feeds, though Google supports a different feed technology called ATOM.)

Currently there are many freeware or shareware readers that will provide this service to users. Yahoo also allows people to keep track of their feeds in its function and provides news feeds. Apple has announced it will include RSS feeds in its de facto browser for its upcoming Tiger operating system, and the current rumor is that Microsoft will enable the same basic capability in its upcoming Longhorn OS.

RSS is especially important to people who are trying to keep in contact with many news and/or entertainment sites that they want to be able to check at their leisure. Because of that, RSS, the so-called TiVo for the Internet, can fundamentally change the way media is consumed and, consequently, the way PR is done.

Despite the current buzz around it, the technology has been around for quite some time now, although some members of its vanguard have only been using it recently. Nick Bradbury, of Bradbury Software, provider of RSS and ATOM reader FeedDemon, only heard about the technology a year or two ago.

Bradbury instantly understood its potential and, before creating FeedDemon, used RSS feeds to send out new product updates for his other products, HomeSite and TopStyle.

"CNet has RSS feeds letting people know about new product downloads," Bradbury says, adding that the feeds made life easier because he "didn't have to manage an email list or worry about people unsubscribing or anything."

FeedDemon, a shareware product, is available on a lot of download sites, so it's difficult to track how many users there are, he says. He has, however, tracked several hundred thousand downloads from his site alone.

His first impression of RSS was that it was a great idea that lacked the tools to harness its potential.

"There was a lot of great content out there, but nothing to view it in," Bradbury said.

Now that there are tools out there to use the technology, both micro and macro publishers, as well as other corporations, have enabled content to be delivered by feeds.

The holy pursuit of transparency

Three and a half years ago, Cisco decided to create its own media channel, News@Cisco, in order to easily provide video communications, features, customer stories, and news releases to reporters, influencers and consumers, says the channel's editor-in-chief, Gretchen Vogel. Last year, the company reported 1.9 million visitors and 13 million page hits. To date this year it has already had 16 million page hits, she says.

Cisco allows users to break down the 200 or so RSS feeds they can receive by categories, such as features, news releases, video; communicators, like CEO John Chambers or other senior executives; industry-specific news such as wireless, voice or routing; or vertical market topics such as healthcare or media/entertainment.

"We saw the RSS trend becoming popular and thought that this could be a positive way of getting info out to our customer," she says. "RSS provides more opportunities for the companies to communicate to the consumers, press and analysts."

Cisco is not alone. Cape Clear Software employs a RSS strategy similar to Cisco's. Apple provides RSS feeds for iTunes' top songs, product guides, support, and "hot news." Microsoft uses the technology to alert users for security and software updates. And Sun Microsystems EVP Jonathan Schwartz told eWEEK the company plans to implement the technology for community building.

Effect on newswires

PR Newswire began using RSS feeds at the beginning of this year after monitoring the technology, according to CIO David Michael.

"RSS feeds take both the PR professional and the end-user preferences into consideration. It's a change in how people can receive information," says Michelle Horowitz, PR Newswire's VP of content development, whose responsibilities include looking at how new technologies affect distribution.

She adds: "This technology allows you to receive info in real time and only what you want. You can filter out news-specific or industry-specific information."

While routing megalith Cisco uses RSS feeds to distribute its own press releases from their site, both PR Newswire and the Cisco insist that it won't eliminate the use for wire services.

"A company might use RSS, but not so much in the news release functionality, rather a newsletter or internal communication," Horowitz says. "They rely on us to put news releases out through our network, but could leverage it for other uses."

Cisco's Vogel says the company continues to issue press releases through BusinessWire.

The fact remains that journalists (and end-users) will always have their peculiarities. Just like the wizened news editor still prefers to use the phone, some people will still want to check the wires.

Pitching media

Pew Internet director Lee Rainie, a former managing editor at US News & World Report, told the Online Review of Journalism last year that journalists love using e-mail to contact sources, but hate what comes to them in their inbox.

Many RSS evangelists say that journalists are usually among the early adopters and are utilizing this technology to get leads. The ability to filter by source or keyword gives reporters the opportunity to receive only receive beat-specific stories. With RSS feeds, journalists are much more able to filter out what does not pertain to them. While this could initially worry PR professionals that their messages can be easily ignored, the truth is (and was) that that has always been the case. With RSS, the important messages will have a much higher likelihood of reaching the journalists. And while journalists might ignore the message, it will get delivered regardless of the message, whereas a spam blocker could snare an e-mail.

Media monitoring

"Marketing [departments] shouldn't just be pushing their message out, they should be listening in," says Dave Winer, writer/editor of the tech-focused blog Scripting News.

He stresses the importance of using feed technology to track how a product is being talked about. In addition, you can best find customer evangelists who you could reach out to later to further advance your product.

While RSS feeds can't rival the qualitative analysis or scope of a media monitoring service, it can provide PR professionals with a daily view of how their clients are perceived by the press and end-users. Both content providers and feed readers are enabling PR professionals to filter and search based on keywords. In some instances, individuals are writing programs that allow you to filter by keyword, even if the source doesn't.

Steve Rubel, VP of client services at CooperKatz and writer of the Micro Persuasion blog, says he has a Google News feed that lets him know when a story about blogging, his passion, has been published. He has another Google News feed for one of his clients in the advertising industry. He gets all of the major tech trade publications delivered to his feed reader instantaneously. Search engines and monitoring sites like PubSub let users receive feeds of links mentioning a keyword or website.

"The best PR people have their heads to the ground in many ways, and RSS is a great way to monitor what's being says in the news," Rubel says. "It automates the ability to stay on top of what journalists are writing."

From an end-user perspective, RSS fits unobtrusively into the mix of information services available. As with all advancements, public relations professionals need to stay abreast of changes, embrace them, and use them to their benefit. While the technology may be new, the story is not.

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