RSS – Hot or Not?

A recent Nielson/NetRatings poll (story here) showed a huge gap between the have’s and the have-not’s. Specifically they asked respondents about their usage of RSS and found that 66% either hadn’t heard of RSS or didn’t know what it was used for and that only 11% of web log readers used RSS to monitor blogs (less than 6% of users overall use RSS according to a Pew Research study from January). There are definitely some implications for those (increasing number) of us who are investing in and trying to grow RSS related businesses (and we’re clearly still in the early stage of the adoption curve for RSS enabled technologies – see Bill Burnham’s great post on the subject here)

That is not what I want to talk about here, however. What I want to talk about is something much more basic about how we are looking at the emerging industry that is building around RSS. I want to talk about “42”Those of you who grew up in the 70’s an 80’s (or who saw the recent movie) might recognize 42 as the much anticipated answer to the ultimate question in Douglass Adams’ classic Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Not exactly what the universe was expecting and most of the 4 part Hitchhiker’s trilogy then chronicles the search for THE ULTIMATE QUESTION. The point being that sometimes the answer we get is because we didn’t understand the question.

I worry about this with RSS. RSS is a technology – not an industry, not a service, not an application. It’s a (somewhat) standardized format for shipping around XML content. Not particularly interesting by itself – it becomes much more interesting when you lawyer something on top of it (access to your favorite blog or podcast; information about your upcoming trip to Aruba; updates on the top accounts you are working on in your SFA or CRM system, etc.).  Techno-geeks understand what you mean when you say things like “what’s your RSS strategy” and “how are you implementing RSS” – just like they understand that SMTP underpins e-mail or that SOAP is what facilitates communication for apps using web services. Everyone uses e-mail – very few people know what SMTP is. Most people make use of .NET or web services enabled applications – I’d guess that most have never heard of SOAP outside of the bathroom.  Both are important technologies, but for the most part behind the scenes.  We need to raise the level of conversation (and action) around RSS.  We can turn “RSS” from a description of an enabling technology into the common name for accessing information through feeds in a central repository (in the same way that successful companies turn their names into verbs), but we need to focus on what RSS does (and building stuff on top of the technology), not just on the technology itself. I’m not at all surprised when I read stats like the one above – we’re still in the early stages of building an industry around a new technology; still early in the hype curve; still figuring out the potential.

As the saying goes: “It’s not the technology . .  it’s what you do with it that counts.”

  • All great points – if you’re interested there’s a parallel discussion going on Chris Carfi’s blog – see

  • Scott

    rss is as unimportant as a CPU. It’s enabling so that’s important, but it doesn’t matter to end users. A lot of people tend to think too low level, and they never see the whole picture which is that rss is going to enable subscriptions. How that data is consumed and produced will work itself out, and podcasting is a good example. Some of these esoteric terms like rss and podcasting might eventually fade, and what we’ll end up with is a button on a website or software to subscribe to certain data or a series of releases. Some of this info might actually be paid for.

  • I completely agree with your point here, Seth, except for making “RSS” a household name in the future. As a marketing agency, we’ve been struggling with communicating what “RSS” is in a way that makes sense to your average web user. It’s pretty hard. The most success we’ve had is when we’ve taken a step AWAY from using any sort of acronym and instead say things like “Read all the news from your favorite sites and blogs, all in one place.”
    But wait, what’s a blog? People aren’t really sure about that one either. What we’ve started to realize is that trying to explain RSS or a web log is like saying, “check out this HTTP site with an XML feed that you can subscribe to, its neat!” To everyone else, it’s just another webpage.
    Once that top layer (as you said) is created OVER the technology is when people will start to “get it.” Apple’s integration of “Podcasts” in iTunes is a good example. People don’t necessarily need to know (or care) what the delivery format is of the broadcasts – they just think its cool that you can have them auto-updated to your iPod.
    I agree with Scott, that even terms like Podcasting will fade once the concept of subscription-based content becomes more second nature to the average web user.

  • Dave Jilk

    I think it’s a mistake to consider RSS a technology at all. It’s a standard. Assessing the potential and market impact of a standard is very different than doing so for an actual technology. You can’t make money directly on a standard — you need two things, one is adoption, the other is a technology that implements or makes use of it. A technology, on the other hand, can provide a revenue stream directly from its adoption even if people don’t standardize on it.
    Standards fundamentally create a commodity environment — since anyone can use it, the differentiation has to come from elsewhere. Certainly, the growth in adoption of a standard creates business opportunities, but again, these must be monetized by technologies (really, applications… I tend to reserve the term technology for the application of science to solving problems, whereas simply developing software at this point is hardly a technology endeavor, any more than building a building is technology).
    Not trying to nitpick — I think the distinction is fairly important.

  • Adoption of RSS by companies will be critical to the success of these new start-ups who are building themselves around RSS, but I’d hate to be one of those start-ups. The start-up will only win if there is widespread adoption and they will be able to offer very little to get any one client to adopt it in the way they need or want them to (except consulting gigs). I don’t think we will really understand the implications of RSS until it is actually being used in ways we have yet to identify. Then the start-ups can emerge and thrive (industry seems a bit much).

  • I’m surprised that it was only 66%. I think it’s higher – maybe even 90%.
    Although my dad has no clue about RSS but has like 15 feeds in his My Yahoo.