Monday, March 8, 2010

RSS Feed Syndication: Full or Short?

A post from Econ Tricks' RSS feed, as it appears in Google Reader.

RSS feeds can be presented in one of two ways:

(1) Full feeds. Readers are presented with the headline and full text of each item, including any embedded photos or videos.
(2) Short feeds. Readers are presented with each item's title and one or two sentences of information, often the beginning of the item or a separately written summary. Readers must click the headline to read the entire post on the originating site.

The decision between the two is crucial for bloggers, newspapers, and other content producers. There are tradeoffs to each, though it will be soon be clear which option I'm partial toward.

The Case for Full Feeds

Full feeds are far easier for readers to engage with. They can still load the article in a separate window or tab if they want, but full feeds allow readers to read the content in a more convenient way. This is especially true for people accessing RSS from portable devices such as iPhones, as users don't have to load the original Web site in a separate window over a sluggish cellphone network.

When an RSS user wakes up in the morning to hundreds of unread items, he's likely to skip many of the marginally interesting short feed items that must be opened in a new window or tab.

For users on the fence about following a particular feed, having to deal with a short feed might be enough to drive them away. In other words, I would expect a blog to attract more readers with a full feed than with a short feed, all else equal.

Items from full feeds are more likely to be e-mailed, posted to Facebook, tweeted, or otherwise shared. Sharing tools are built into many RSS clients, and they're more likely to be used if readers can judge the quality of the article within the same window, instead of opening a separate window, reading the article, determining its merit, and then either going back and finding the item in the RSS client or searching the source Web site for its own unfamiliar version of sharing tools.

Although full feeds may generate fewer clickthroughs to the originating site per user, publishers can still monetize this readership by automatically including advertisements on each feed item or by interspersing special advertising items into the feed. I imagine that such ads would pay abysmal rates, as most RSS users are efficiency nuts and newshounds who aren't going to look very closely at advertisements at the bottom of each feed item before moving on.

Not all content producers are motivated by profit. For writers who care only about maximizing readership, full feeds seem like the slam-dunk choice.

Additionally, short feed publishers may be underestimating just how fickle online readers are. In a recent survey, a reported 44 percent of Google News readers just scan headlines and never click any of them. RSS readers are probably even more fickle, so short feed publishers may be alienating a large portion of their potential readership.

The Case for Short Feeds

As explored above, people who read a site's content only in their RSS client without ever visiting the underlying site are extremely hard to monetize. It's no surprise that all mainstream newspapers and magazines (at least to my knowledge) run short feeds. Journalism is increasingly strapped for cash these days, so advertising revenue has to be the number one consideration. Short feed publishers are betting that getting more readers to the actual site, even if it means alienating hordes of RSS users, is the best strategy in the long run.

Once readers are engaged with the source Web site, they might explore other articles, click advertisements, or even sign up for a paid subscription (though RSS users aren't usually the type to sign up for such things). Still, it's not abundantly clear that short feeds will generate more revenue than full feeds would, especially because they make the RSS experience far less useful and because RSS readers are much harder to monetize anyway.

If you haven't guessed by now, Econ Tricks uses a full RSS feed. A good overview of RSS is here.


Josh Hattersley said...

You'd probably be interested in this recent piece over at Daring Fireball on the subject:

Greg said...

Thanks for sharing that. I guess I'm not the only one thinking along these lines!