January 4, 2006, 12:00 AM

Cutting through the clutter

The newest online marketing tool is really simple syndication—and for many e-retailers it`s really simple

Customers registered with eBags.com got something new in the e-mail they received from the online retailer the first week in December: a link allowing them to subscribe to an RSS feed that will let them know when the daily eBags Hot Deal is posted. Clicking on that link brought up a page with the deal of the day, plus an explanation of RSS, and links to several subscription-based or downloadable readers-applications needed to view that subscribed content.

If the customers didn’t know what an RSS feed is, they’re not alone-many retailers don’t know what an RSS feed is either. But in an age where legitimate marketing e-mail has fallen prey to spam overload, RSS-really simple syndication-is getting some retailers’ attention as a way to rise above spam. A recent Jupiter Research study found that 60% of marketers polled said spam filters are reducing the effectiveness of their e-mail marketing campaigns. And even when permission-based e-mail makes it past spam filters, overburdened consumers may ignore or delete even e-mail they signed up to receive.

RSS, a means of publishing regular updates to web-based content, is a channel that exists outside of e-mail. RSS subscribers choose the content they wish to receive from publishers-blogs, for instance, are often syndicated via RSS. Other content sources now include retailers who create their own RSS feeds. Consumers who wish to receive RSS feeds download to their computer a feed reader, an application that allows them to view the delivered content. They may even have this functionality already through service bundled into MyYahoo; future releases of leading operating systems will likely incorporate reader functionality as well. Consumers choose from a variety of online sources the RSS feeds they want to subscribe to.

The RSS reader thus added to a consumer’s desktop or laptop, for example, periodically contacts the feed sponsor’s server to look for and pull the requested content. It opens a small window in the user’s browser to deliver that subscribed content for viewing, whether it’s news headlines or, in the case of eBags, information on and a link to the Hot Deal of the day.

Part of the appeal of content delivery via RSS for consumers is that the only content that the channel delivers is content they’ve asked for: as a subscription-only model, it’s 100% spam free. That’s part of its appeal to marketers, too: Though subscribers ultimately may or may not choose to view the content, the delivery rate is 100%.

That was an important part of eBags’ decision to pilot an RSS feed to augment a healthy e-mail marketing program. “It was a huge part of our thinking,” say e-mail marketing and retention manager J.T. Capps. “You need to keep moving with the marketplace. People are looking at RSS as a way around clutter. We need to be early with that and the minute customers are looking to do that, we want to cater to it.”

No waiting

Whether as an end-run around crowded e-mail inboxes, a branding exercise, or in the case of dynamically-generated feeds, a way to super-segment the customer base, RSS is popping up in the marketing efforts of a growing number of retailers. Proponents say it’s an easy way to leverage content that already exists, and one that’s tuned into the perpetually plugged in and online way more consumers are living and shopping now. “The value of RSS is that it allows you not to have to wait for anything or look for anything. RSS lets you say in advance, ‘This is what I want; anytime you publish something that has to do with this, send it my way,’” says Ethan Holland, director of e-commerce at W. Atlee Burpee’s Burpee.com, an early RSS feed sponsor.

And it can be a relatively low-cost implementation, even for those outsourcing to a third party. For example, notes Paul Rosenblum, vice presidnet of marketing for RubiconSoft, a consumer preference marketing services company with an on-demand delivery model, an e-mail service provider may charge one cent to a fraction of a cent per message for distributing an e-mail newsletter. At a million messages a week at a half-cent per message, the cost for one week’s mailing would be $5,000; for four messages a month, $20,000. By contrast, he says, the fee structure for RSS feed is a flat monthly fee that does not include a per-message fee. Under that fee structure, distributing the same four communications to customers via RSS would be about a tenth of the cost of e-mail-less than $2,500, Rosenblum estimates.

EBags’ implementation of RSS from e-mail technology and services vendor WhatCounts is just in the pilot stage, and, so far, RSS subscription is offered to customers only in its regular marketing e-mails. Depending on customers’ initial level of interest in subscribing to an RSS feed, Capps says eBags will integrate it into its other marketing efforts in 2006 and put the subscription offer on its web site. While it’s too soon to determine that interest, Capps is betting that RSS is the right delivery channel for Hot Deals. “RSS lends itself very well to alert-type functionality, whether it’s about an item back in stock or new models or brands,” he says.

So why not just send out such alerts via e-mail, as many online retailers already do? Aside from the possibility that any message can get lost in a crowded inbox, enthusiasts say RSS trumps e-mail on a couple of fronts. For one thing, RSS can give marketers the chance to reach out to customers in a more targeted way and more frequently without risking customers’ annoyance.

“Right now, retailers know they really can’t e-mail their customers more than once a week,” says Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li. “With RSS, the consumer is saying, ‘I want this information-go ahead and send me something every day.’”

Zeroing in

For another, the more immediate nature of RSS feeds and options on feed delivery that already exist or that are on the way stand to create more of what the industry is calling “seducible moments” between marketers and their customers: zeroing in on them with the right offer at the time they are ready to buy.

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