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What The Shift From RSS to Social Media Means for Marketers

John Doherty —  February 8, 2013
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A fundamental shift has occurred over the past two years in the way people consume content on the Internet. Not quite six years ago, Google bought the RSS service Feedburner for $100M and integrated it with their blogging platform, Blogger, as well as allowing bloggers on other platforms like WordPress to syndicate their content through it.

According to Compete, Feedburner is on a downward trend in terms of traffic:

BuiltWith seems to corroborate this:

feedburner usage stats
Source

In fact, Google seems to think that RSS is dying because they have deprecated the Feedburner API and are even talking about shutting it down completely in 2013. That should signal something to marketers if Google does not think the product worth keeping alive, even if simply because Google is the big player on the Internet and holds the ability to shift mindsets and kill verticals if they wish.

What’s The Shift Towards?

The shift seems to be away from subscribing to websites and instead about subscribing to individuals or entities, often via social media as you can see in this iCrossing graphic below:

RSS feeds
iCrossing statistics – Source

While we still have RSS aggregators like Alltop, these seem to be driving less traffic along with RSS feeds in general. Check out traffic coming to my posts from my RSS subscribers, of which there are about 1,000 at this point:

rss stats

On a good day, with a really good post, I get maximum 55 visits from RSS. The total numbers shake out to, as you can see, almost 2,000 over the past 6 months, but compare this against overall site traffic and it pales in comparison at a measly 2.3 percent of my traffic. I’ll say that again:

RSS is a measly 2.3% of my site’s traffic with almost 1,000 RSS subscribers.

all traffic

Compare this to Twitter over the same time period, which drives 3x the amount of traffic:

twitter stats

Entities, Not Sites

I think there are good reasons why we are moving away from subscribing to websites and instead are subscribing to people or brands that we trust.

First, the web is an increasingly vast place. Because it is mostly run off of algorithms (at least Google is), anything can rise to the top if the right person is behind the scenes pulling the levers. Both brands and individuals can build trust over time. Websites build trust as well and through this they become brands.

Second, people trust people they know. Take a look at the top posts on Inbound.org at any point in time. I bet you’ll see a post from SEOmoz, maybe SEObook (when Aaron writes), maybe my site, probably PointBlankSEO, probably KaiserTheSage, maybe Distilled. These posts get voted up because of the brand, whether company or person, that has been built. I don’t have the data and I’m not sure how I’d pull it, but I’d also bet that the posts that are written by people with larger social followings on these sites get upvoted and shared even more. I may have to pull those statistics at some point.

trusted entities

Social, Not Aggregation

The Internet is increasingly moving away from the anonymized content of old, and is now moving towards trusted entities. This is seen especially by the number of followers that someone has, which in a way gives them power on the Internet.

Smart products have sprung up around this, like Pocket, which allows users to save content to read later (the product used to be called ReadItLater) from many different places on the Internet. Here are just some of their integrations:

pocket integrations

People are also creating lists on social media to follow different topics from people that they trust. I’ve noticed an increase recently in the number of people adding me to lists on Twitter, which makes me wonder if more and more people are using them to keep track of different topics that interest them. Check out the lists that Jonathon Colman of REI has been added to:

jcolman lists part of

Social is Timely

We should also note that social is timely, happening in realtime and current. While some have lamented that blogging limits the longevity of content, I would say that social media does this as well. Social media is great for surfacing new content for people in a place where they can passively find it as opposed to actively curating content through something like Flipboard or Feedly.

I’m watching for Twitter to dominate realtime news even more in 2013.

What This Means for Marketers

I think there are a number of implications for marketers.

Where Should You Invest

First, you have to know where your users are coming from so that you know where to invest. You need to see what the ROI is for your effort and whether you should keep investing. FOr example, here are some rough numbers on the CTRs from my different traffic sources:

referrals from email blast

From this, I can tell that both email and Twitter get approximately a 10% clickthrough rate. That’s not too bad. To get 1000 visitors on either of these, I need 10000 subscribers. That number can go up depending on how I am leveraging different tactics as well.

But with RSS, I get approximately a 2.4% clickthrough rate. To generate the same 1,000 visitors, I’d have to have 24,000 RSS subscribers. Maybe I should deprioritize RSS feeds and instead prioritize post syndication through email. In fact, I’ll probably do just that.

Brands Brands Brands

I wrote about personal branding a while ago, and I still think it important to keep in mind. As you build your social followings and put content around the Internet, you build your brand as a trusted content producer and can drive more traffic.

As an example, Rand has built himself a good name in the SEO industry and a lot of followers. When he shared out his post recently about his journey towards self-awareness, he generated over 900 clicks:

randfish clicks to site

I’ve also found that if you have a presence online, you can drive traffic to new sites with just your own name. I launched a site SingleGeared back in August or so. At first it was focused on cycling, though I pretty quickly realized that I wasn’t as passionate about building an audience around that as I thought. So I pivoted it to focus on people who are moving forward in life (I don’t post enough, but I have some more post ideas), which is tangentially related to the audience on this site. Check out the traffic difference (time on site is way down because the old content had a lot of videos):

new site

Brands can also invest in the same way, engaging their users with content on social networks. RedBull and GoPro do this really well across their social networks, driving engagement with high-quality content. GoPro even does a lot of Sponsored posts on Facebook to increase the number of Likes on their content, which I think is really smart.

De-Anonymize Yourself

A third way to leverage this shift towards people trusting brands and using social media is to invest time in those areas and de-anonymize yourself. Of course as an SEO, but moreso as a content publisher myself, I’m going to talk about authorship:

failure

If you’re a publisher on a site, you should also be a publisher on social networks, sharing out useful information to your users. My favorite way to leverage social and to help people know who you are around the Internet is through streamlining your personal profiles, especially your pictures. Ross Hudgens wrote a great post about this on YOUmoz a while ago that I have taken to heart. Check out Ross’s profiles:

ross hudgens
ross hudgens twitter
ross hudgens site

Conclusion

What do you think? Are we moving away from being loyal to sites and instead becoming loyal to individuals and brands, even outside of their websites? Are we using social media as our aggregators now, and using apps like Flipboard in a similar way?

people aggregation

John Doherty

Posts

I'm the new (as of October 2013) Online Marketing Manager of Hotpads.com, soon to be based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, explore new and interesting food in New York, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

14 responses to What The Shift From RSS to Social Media Means for Marketers

  1. Nice post John. I’ve been closely following this trend as RSS feeds are still a large part of my content consumption process.

    I personally do not use my social feeds to read or organize content. For me, these are simply for discovering new content and engaging with those I am connected with. I rely much more heavily on my RSS subscriptions for staying on top of the feeds I get the most out of and actually digging into the content I want to read.

    I guess a better way to look at it, for me, is that RSS is much less noisy compared to social feeds. I can definitely see social getting to a point where RSS subscriptions of websites may be obsolete, but in the meantime I am yet to find a better way to find, organize, manage and digest the content that means the most to me without having to actively watch a real-time social feed.

    Now, if we’re talking about where to spend time as a marketer then I can most certainly agree with the trend of email and social subscriptions increasing at a greater rate than RSS subscriptions. There’s no doubt here.

    At the end of the day too, I just love using Reeder. It just works for me. I can’t imagine this tool being dead at some point in the future and having to rely on Twitter or Facebook lists.

  2. I stopped using RSS feed a few years ago, when I stopped working for a music news site. Since then, I’ve been focusing on visiting the sites I know and trust. Somedays I’ll visit te site directly (like Daring Fireball), by typing in the domain name into my address bar (hah!), or sometimes I’m reminded by an automated Twitter feed, like for Seth Godin. Recently I started subscribing to a few email updates, but found that to be too “intrusive,” as I don’t want my inbox to be backed up with “new content.” Bleh! So yes, social media is how I keep up with news and interesting bits these days. I follow good people who share good stuff.

  3. While the trends on RSS are down I wouldn’t remove it from the mix, nor think of it as a throw away part of your strategy.

    People don’t understand that RSS is essentially TiVo for the web. I don’t have to rely on Inbound or Twitter or Google+ to catch that interesting piece of content during the window of time that it’s popular. I can digest the content whenever I want. If someone (Google Reader) would understand how to market it, then adoption would be higher.

    But that doesn’t address the reality of now right? Who is using RSS and how are they using it?

    For me, I read entire articles in my reader, even for sites who only publish a partial feed. (Thanks Super Reader)

    In addition, those who are using RSS are clearly more technology savvy than the norm, right? Just based on the graph of those who don’t know what an RSS feed is, we can determine this. I’d argue that this technology savvy may translate into individuals who are active in other platforms where they could get your message out, such as Twitter or Google+.

    And if we think of these people as information rich users, wouldn’t they potentially be the people who are most likely to aggregate content and be curators? In short, I think RSS users may often be influencers so you can’t measure it based solely on the specific CTR but how that view (not tracked) and click might unlock more. (Of course I’m making a number of assumptions and in writing them down I want to do more due diligence to confirm my theories.)

    In the end, I tend to believe that RSS is an important part of a multi-channel strategy.

    • Thanks AJ. I wasn’t trying to imply that RSS isn’t useful, but rather that it is decreasing in usage, and might be going away, and therefore we need to find out where people are consuming our content (and it may be RSS via email) and therefore where we should invest more time to get better ROI.

  4. Although I find excellent information from social media RSS allows me to consume information in a much more organized and focused way. Social has too much noise.

    However, I think the average internet user has no idea what RSS is.

    Marketers should invest significantly more in email marketing. In some cases more than social.

    • Matt, this is where things like Twitter Lists come in handy there are plenty of ways to avoid a lot of the ‘noise’ on social. I also think this forces content creators to get creative instead of just pumping out content, good content that finds it’s way through the noise is probably worth reading!

  5. I’m still trying to figure out why Google has deprecated the API for Feedburner, and if there’s a tie-in with G+ somewhere. I still love using RSS feeds, since I can easily scan through the headlines to pick and choose what I want to read.

    I agree, John, that brands and people are the driving force behind what I decide to read. I’ll even skip over the 1st or 2nd position in the SERPs if I don’t immediately recognize the site (or if it doesn’t have the authorship markup).

  6. I came over to make a similar comment about RSS. I get RSS direct to email for about 8-12 blogs. The ones that deliver a full post are read entirely in my “Blog Updates” label in gmail. I don’t click through unless I want to grab the URL to share. There are a few with summary feeds that I will click through if title is interesting.

    Point being, I think those subscribers are just as loyal as direct site visitors and more tech savvy on average.

    I think feedburner may get scuttled, but RSS will continue on, purely as a convenience for publishers to syndicate headlines, if not content. There are plenty of tools online that exist solely for the 1% most technical internet users (eg github), and those won’t go away simply because normal people don’t know how or why to use them.

    And for gosh sakes, if anyone removes RSS from their site, put in a damn email subscribe module and build your list, or I will not follow your content in any fashion.

  7. I think it is a simple as Google realizes there is more $$$$ in social than there is in keeping Feedburner alive. They want your data.

    Publishers may feel the same way. If you’re only getting a small amount of click-throughs from RSS you’d probably prefer methods that get people to your actual site better, whether it’s social, email or otherwise.

    How often do people actively promote their RSS feed compared to their social profiles or email list? That right there is the real reason for this downturn.

  8. John,

    I love your thorough analysis of the downward trend in RSS usage. And I agree that the usage of RSS as a direct tool for reader subscription is in decline. However, there seems to be a resurgence of usage by mobile platform aggregators like Flipboard, they use RSS for its semantic tagging in order to better understand how to format content in their applications. Perhaps RSS will become less about readers and aggregation and more about defining the meaning of content and its attributes in the future.

    Let me know your thoughts.

  9. Very interesting insights! I’ve noticed a similar shift from RSS to Twitter/Facebook etc. Because of this I now make sure to post all my articles on my social media profiles. For RSS I’ve decided to show a partial feed so only a paragraph or two is shown, so subscribers have to click over to read the full thing.

  10. John, I believe you that RSS is less relevant than it used to be.

    For me, though, it’s still a very important way to keep track of important blogs I follow. I don’t want my e-mail clogged with announcements of every new post, so RSS allows me to check in and see what’s new with who on my own schedule. It also allows me to ignore everybody for days or weeks at a time if I want or need to.

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