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:


(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.

  • http://www.krubner.com/ Lawrence Krubner

    This is a great post. I enjoyed reading it.

    My mom is in her 70s and over the last 3 years she has become a regular reader of Google News. I set it as the homepage on FireFox and IE on her computer. After I’d set it up, she surprised me by exploring it enough to learn how to customize it. Since she is fluent in French, she told Google News that she wanted news in both English and French. She now gets titles in both languages.

    More recently, she’s become a regular reader of DailyKos. For years my brother has sent her links to occasional posts on DailyKos, but only recently has my mom become a regular reader. Assuming she eventually gets interested in other political blogs, I imagine there is an RSS feed reader in her future.

    There are young people whose reading habits were shaped during the era of the Web. They’ve grown up getting their news online. And every year they are another year older (eventually they become that demographic that advertisers value most). On the other hand, there are certain paper magazines that have what I’d guess are slightly older audiences. Think of magazines about fishing or boats. The audience for these magazines will, I suspect, be slowly eroded by the generational shift. To me, the conclusion seems to be that eventually whole categories of print-based magazines will be endangered by their online rivals. If this decade saw the maturation of the tools needed to build complex, dynamic websites, the next decade is likely to see large scale shifts in how the public gets its news. RSS feeds seem like an obvious part of that shift.

    About this:

    Long story short, since the redesign in May, my RSS suscribers have doubled.

    I subscribe to your site through NetVibes. I forget when, exactly, I first subscribed. I think it was about a year ago that I first noticed that you’d started to post on a somewhat regular basis. It was another few months before I actually subscribed.

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  • http://www.pandu.web.id rudy

    What an interesting article by you Darren. Good analysis. i agree that some of us tried to avoid this orange icon :D in terms or sense of why, we don’t know.
    But for some people, they don’t feel as a real blogger if they didnot do a blogwalking, visiting certain blog one by one, rather than subcribe the feed.

    For, i do subcribe to certain urls, which i like the content, or wait for the next series of article.

  • http://www.ontronix.net Platus

    Hello Derren thank u so much for ur interesting article…
    my best greetings from germany :-)

  • http://www.dslrcamera.com DSLR Camera

    Interesting article but I’ve been looking around to where I can actually publish my RSS feeds to the sites that people search for feeds or publish other feeds (based on catagories) on their sites. That informaiton would be of great value. I’ve seen feedburner and other feed sites but I’m not sure how that actually get’s the data out there.