Syndication technology that puts users in control


17 Feb 2005

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Media workers are doing it. IT firms are doing it. Large corporations are doing it. Even the Departments of Health and Children and Enterprise, Trade and Employment are using it. It is RSS, a phenomenon that’s sweeping North America and is due to come to a PC near you soon.

As the name suggests, RSS or really simple syndication is a syndication technology but one that allows end users to decide precisely what information they receive. The organisation or individual providing the information sets up an RSS feed related to a certain subject. End users download an RSS reader that allows them to receive and read the feed on their PC. Users can choose either to set up the reader as a separate application on their desktop, view an RSS feed through their web browser or have it drop into their email inbox. Users can also download free news aggregator software that will periodically check each RSS feed to which you are subscribed to see if new items have been published and then display the results in a window on your PC.

RSS was developed in 1999 by Netscape and then improved by one Dave Weiner, now a Harvard fellow, whose web log, Scriptingnews.com, has a huge following. Similar to Weiner, many people who use RSS also tend to blog a lot and there is a very tight entwinement between the two technologies. In the beginning, both were used mainly by and for the internet fraternity but lately the wider business community has latched on to their potential.

Unsurprisingly, publishing has been the first industry to embrace RSS blogging. Media channels as diverse as computer magazines, the New York Times, Time, Fortune, USA Today and the BBC have set up RSS feeds on their websites to distribute news stories to users. Next have come big IT firms as well as public relations (PR) and marketing communications professionals who have seen the value of the technology as a means of delivering precise information to a targeted audience. Big names in IT such as Cisco, IBM and Microsoft have all RSS-enabled their press rooms and encouraged employees to set up complementary blogs that create ‘noise’ and discussion around certain new products. Microsoft alone is said to have 1,200 external-facing blogs in addition to many others that are for internal consumption only.

An Irish firm, Hookable Media, has become one of the early leaders in RSS technology. The Sligo-based company provides an online RSS service called Nooked aimed at corporate communications professionals.

“Corporate communications and marketing people wanted something that was easy to use, easy to deploy and that provides them with some way of extending the reach of their message. They also want metrics, a way of measuring usage patterns,” says co-founder and CEO Fergus Burns (pictured).

He describes the company’s business model as similar to Salesforce.com’s: rather than pay a software licence fee, clients pay a subscription. For a monthly subscription of US$100 per month or US$1,000 per annum, a client can get five RSS feeds, covering popular communications channels such as press releases, media coverage, events and product support.

Customers include Object Marketing, a PR/marketing agency in the UK; Silicon Valley-based Pr firm Voce Communications and Swedish legal firm Linklaters. Irish clients include software firm Rococosoft and Leitrim County Council.

Another Irish technology firm, Cape Clear, has been a leader in the deployment rather if not development of the technology. “We have offered RSS feeds for past two years,” says Tom Murphy, PR manager. “About 2,000 people have signed up to corporate news, events and software development information.”

According to Murphy, one of the driving forces behind the growth of RSS is the desire to control spam. “I know in the US a lot of journalists are asking PR people to use RSS to send out press releases – rather than email them – because it helps reduce their levels of spam. The benefit to publishers is that it sidesteps the whole spam problem. The RSS is delivered into separate software application and there’s no way for the spammer to infiltrate that.”

Burns agrees: “RSS is 100pc controlled by the consumer, there is no spam, and marketing and PR professionals worried about the Can Spam Act, 2003 in the US have jumped on it for that reason,” he points out.

RSS is being sold to the PR industry as a means of enhancing communication between their clients and analysts and press. It is a message that PR professionals such as Tim Kinsella of Kinman PR in Dublin can relate to, albeit with some reservations. “One of its key benefits is that it will help maintain the required level of trust that exists between reputable PR people and media, where media will elect to sign up to an RSS feed of strictly reliable and/or newsworthy information from the companies they follow. That said, anything that diminishes the personal connectivity between a company’s individual executives and media (replacing it with a stream of blurb) is not necessarily a good thing. I am also sure the spammers will somehow seek to undermine RSS in the future (if and when it takes hold).”

Julie Szabo, a Vancouver-based PR consultant who acts on behalf of Hookable Media, says the technology is having a huge impact in North America not just on large organisations but on small businesses as well. Her own consultancy, Capulet, has used RSS blogs to win new clients and become an authoritative voice in niche areas, such as email newsletters and marketing communications. “Blogging and RSS have made a huge difference to the way I work,” she asserts.

Szabo is convinced that RSS is here to stay, arguing that RSS and blogging are part of a technical revolution that is ‘democratising’ the internet, making it available to a much wider audience and much easier to use. Web 2.0 is the name that has been given to this new-look internet.

“The idea is that the internet is moving from simply being an enormous database to being a much more flexible communications tool.”

By Brian Skelly