January 4, 2006, 12:00 AM

Cutting through the clutter

(Page 2 of 3)

“I’m not in my RSS reader all the time. I don’t always have my instant messaging on. And I hate going through clogged e-mail,” says Li. “But if those Lion King tickets come on sale at a price I want to know about, ping me as fast as you can so I can take my kids. Or if a certain item comes on sale on eBay, I want to know as soon as possible. E-mail is not necessarily the way to do that.”

In fact, the experiences and observations of retailers who have already started doing just that highlight the opportunities and the challenges of the channel from a marketing perspective. One of retail’s oldest brands became one of the first to offer an RSS feed to its customers when Burpee.com launched one early last year. Director of e-commerce Holland is a fan of the technology in part because he believes it’s an innovation that offers something fresh to the end user online.

“Many of the things that make you think how great the Internet is, like analytics for instance, take place behind the scenes,” Holland says. “RSS is something directly visible to the end consumer that is going to bring them better content.”

Keeping it fresh

Delivering that content could amount to a positive branding experience for any e-commerce feed sponsor, but in the absence of ongoing sale alerts for a retailer with a highly seasonal business, exactly what content can make for a compelling daily feed?

“One of the hardest things about an RSS feed is that you have to be able to provide a steady stream of content to keep it fresh. You can’t just post once a month,” Holland says. He adds he has unsubscribed from about a third of the RSS feeds to which he subscribed because he found their content to be of no value or as he terms it, “spider food.”

Holland found his own answer in the graphics and photo legacy of Burpee’s 130-year history, including thousand of photos sent in by proud home gardeners. The feed, which requires about an hour of IT time once a day five days a week to load into a preformatted template, includes Burpee’s weekly e-mail to customers repurposed for syndication and other graphic content including customer pictures.

“Most people go to Burpee once a year in the early spring to plan what seeds they want and maybe even order directly,” says Li. “With the feed, the relationship has gone from a once-yearly event to a daily branded experience.”

And as with the company’s regular e-mail, any product mentions are linked back to the site and the opportunity to buy, and that’s driving traffic and sales. According to source code showing the origin of clicks to the site, click-throughs from the RSS feed went up 200% from February to March 2005, and 400% from February through November. Revenue off RSS is up 200% from spring to fall.

The future

At DVDEmpire.com, the estimated 2,000 RSS subscribers represent a fraction of an e-mail marketing list of 200,000 to 300,000. Yet the company views RSS as its future. “A lot of people ask us for coupons via e-mail, then they don’t get them and they get angry,” says director of operations Alicia Berry. “About a third of our e-mails are undeliverable because the customer has changed their e-mail address, or put up a spam blocker or put us on some list. Because we do send coupons, we want to avoid that through RSS feeds.”

Feeds now are generally on new title releases, and they’re static, updated once a day. But DVDEmpire expects to launch RSS delivery of coupons in 2006, and it’s working on developing dynamically generated, customer-specific, customer-service feeds, such as instant notification when an order ships or notification of any order-related issues. Already, Berry says, DVDEmpire has seen that customers who receive its RSS feed buy 30% to 40% more than customers who don’t get the feed. Berry notes that other factors could be responsible for that difference, but says there’s also a difference in a straight comparison of buying habits among the same customers before and after subscribing to the feed, with customers who previously had not received the feed buying about 3% more once they get the feed.

While Berry and DVDEmpire see RSS as a better way to eventually communicate with much of the customer base, they’re also aware of limiting factors and issues unique to the technology. “The problem we are seeing with RSS is that the feed readers don’t prioritize,” she says, noting that with multiple feeds coming into one reader, there is no easy way for marketers or subscribers to arrange the order in which they appear. “That’s one of the hurdles we are gong to have to work on,” she says.

Using technology from RubiconSoft, fashion marketer Guess Inc. also launched an RSS feed, focused on new arrivals, in a limited way. Based on early results it will be expanding its use this year. Director of e-commerce Mike Africa says Guess last year started offering RSS feeds to visitors to one of the company’s three web sites, GuessFactory.com, but it’s identified on the home page only as My Shop Alerts. Africa believes too many customers still don’t recognize the technology by name and “the last thing I want to do is confuse anyone,” he says. The choice of GuessFactory.com for the initial rollout also was strategic. “Of our sites, that gets the least traffic,” he says. “To test something like this on the Guess.com site, it could potentially be great or it could be a debacle. I couldn’t put the main site in that kind of jeopardy.”

Open rates go up

For similar reasons, Guess elected not to include a link to downloadable RSS readers from outside sources for customers who didn’t already have one on their computers. It offers e-mail and My Yahoo as subscription delivery alternatives. “Say something crashes. Even though we are not technically responsible, because a customer went through our site to download a reader that is publicly available on the Internet, there might be a natural association that they downloaded it through Guess so Guess might be at fault,” he says. “I didn’t want any repercussions to affect us.”

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