Effectively Advertising an RSS Feed

Google Reader’s popularity is surging and the number of people consuming web content via RSS readers has grown overall, but no one’s claiming RSS is a mainstream concept just yet. It’s mostly the geeks and early-adopters who know what it is and what to do with it, thus they don’t need to be sold on whether a blog offers an RSS feed—their feedreader can auto-detect it based on URI anyway, or they can grab it from the Firefox address bar:

A List Apart graphic

Yet so many theme designers use valuable screen space to display a prominent (and mysterious, to most) orange RSS icon. Non-techy users will either avoid the icon or click it and be taken to a page of XML gobbledygook.

I realize that some theme designers display RSS info as a teaser, encouraging the casual reader to become a regular reader, but if you’re going to advertise your site’s feed, consider your audience first. Let them know what “subscribing” entails, why it’s good, and give them some options.

Jeff Veen got it right back in 2005 (“Linking to feeds: Another approach“):

But, what does that icon do? Here’s where we struggled with convention. Typically, people either click on the icons or drag them to an aggregator. Some folks right-click and copy the feed’s URL. We decided not to link feeds directly from the icon, but instead offer up a page that shows all the feeds a user can subscribe to.

As Jeff points out, the New York Times is one of the few sites which makes subscribing via RSS an intuitive experience:

nyt

(Curiously, the XML blurb in Jeff’s own sidebar says, “Click the link above to be notified automatically every time I add a new post.” Granted, his audience is undeniably technical, but why potentially a) confuse a newbie, or b) state the obvious to a techy?)

In 2006, Stephanie Quilao published another great article (“How to Explain RSS the Oprah Way“) that defined the purpose of RSS in down-to-earth language:

Suppose you have 50 sites and blogs that you like to visit regularly. Going to visit each website and blog everyday could take you hours. With RSS, you can “subscribe” to a website or blog, and get “fed” all the new headlines from all of these 50 sites and blogs in one list, and see what’s going on in minutes instead of hours.

In fact, using Quilao’s article as a reference I was able to get both my 60+year old parents to start using Netvibes this year. What’s interesting is that they both still ignore the big orange icons when reading blogs. Instead they a) use Netvibes’ “Add Content” button and enter the main site URI, or b) use the bookmarklet.

When it came to redesigning my own site this year, I figured that even if the audience was tech-savvy, why not make it easy on them? In the right-hand sidebar are direct links to some of the top readers (Bloglines, iGoogle, Netvibes) with a pre-configured URI, making the one-click subscription process more about courtesy than necessity.

Long story short, since the redesign in May, my RSS suscribers have doubled. Because I’m superstitious, I’d like to think part of it is reconsidering how I offered my feed.