The RSS/Feed/Email debate has been raging for a while, in pockets of enthusiasm and then pockets of nothingness. This is pretty much how RSS works and feels to me and many others.
Have you ever tried to explain to anyone who is not tech-savvy what RSS means? Do you even know what it stands for (no Googling)? I have tried and it’s certainly not easy.
I read an extremely interesting post on how to boost your RSS readers. [From here on in this post I'm going to refer to RSS and e-mail readers as subscribers.] The post made me think about RSS and Subscriptions and an example that I have in my repertoire – SA Rocks.
SA Rocks was never very strong in the subscriptions department. I kind of used my Feedburner account but kind of didn’t. I never tracked it and never followed it. I also used to display full posts in my RSS. I don’t anymore but more on that further down.
There are certain types of users and readers that will inevitably visit your blog.
The Googler will search for something, find your blog, read it and most likely leave. There is the off chance that they will like what they see and either return or add your blog to their subscription list. The Stumbler falls in to this category too. Both types of users fall under the blanket category of the “Digg Effect” or “Slashdot Effect“.
The Seeker will actively seek out content that your blog offers, either like and stay or read it and leave.
The Regular Reader falls in to two categories and these are the readers that we all like to gather on our blogs. These readers will bookmark your site and religious visit your domain or they will subscribe via RSS or e-mail subscriptions.
RSS is for savvy users. For Techies who make use of Bloglines, Google Reader and Desktop readers that pull content from a site and display it in conjunction with other blogs or websites that a user subscribes too. Locally that market is tiny, minute and often non-existent for many bloggers and website owners. For this simple reason I personally believe that RSS subscribers are a nice to have, not a means to success.
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that you should completely get rid of your RSS icon, it’s a necessity that every blogger must have. The last thing that any blogger wants to do is piss off a potential subscriber by not allowing them the choice to subscribe. But placing all your eggs in the RSS basket is going to leave your subscriptions cracked and flalling.
In my opnion (and this is merely an opinion garnered from my experiences) SA Internet users like e-mail, it is a familiar means to receive information and it is something that many people check daily, if not hourly. This is why I believe that if you are targetting subscriptions, e-mail is the way forward. It is convenient for the user and not intrusive or extra work for them. All they need to do is check their email and read your content.
The goal with subsctiptions must be to gain visits to your actual website or blog. In this vain e-mail is a great mechanism to make use of. If people like your content, the chance is they will want more and click through to your site. This is not hard to do. Enter Feedburner.
A while back (about 5 months ago) I decided to activate my e-mail subscription option on my SA Rocks feedburner account. It really is as simple as activating the option and placing the code on your site. Users enter their email address and are immediately subscribed to your daily feed, in their inbox, for free. I immediately (Â±2 weeks) saw a marked increase in my subscribers.
Free is a very important word for me to use. I specifically choose it because of the connotations. Free means it’s a bonus, it’s something that you, as a blogger or content provided, are giving your reader. You are invariably telling them that they come first. They don’t even need to visit your site for your content. Your number one priority is having them read, wherever, whenever. You are not only after their clicks, eyes and visits. This is important.
But tell me something, how do your readers know that your subscription option is actually free? They don’t. Why? Because everything else that they subscribe to in their lives comes at a cost. Newspaper and magazine subscriptions are not free, high end content and extras are not free, not according to local users. Our market is not used to free subscriptions. This is what CopyBlogger says in the post that I’ve linked to above. You need to make it obvious. Change the wording of your subscription title from “Subscribe via email or RSS” to “Get free updates daily” or “Daily updates in your inbox”. I think this might work, even if it is merely a subconscious activation, it will still make a difference to the Googlers and Regular Readers who want to grab your content simply, easily and… for free.
The other important thing that I learned through SA Rocks is placement. Placement of your subscription options is integral to the success of your subscriptions. Make your e-mail subscription box a priority in your template or theme. Be sure to make it stand out. There are loads of different opinions on eye-track priority; left to right, top to bottom, colours, flashing text (never) boxes etc etc etc. SA Rocks goes against the common concept slightly. Mark Forrester placed the email subscription in the top right hand side of the SA Rocks design when he handles the SA Rocks redesign. If we wanted it as a top, top priority we would have placed it in the top left of the header, but that is reserved for advertising.
The effects of this were immediate (one week). E-mail subscription began to boom on SA Rocks. Subsequently visits to the blog almost doubled. I’m not saying this reigns true for every blog or publisher, but it worked for SA Rocks.
Below is a graphic illustration of SA Rocks subscriptions climbing from the Month of March 2008 to now. The increase is phenomenal.
This is a debate that has gone on for a while and still has no conclusion. My conclusion is this: Who cares? Make your choice and stick by it. The complaints that you will receive will be from the Tech-Savvy group of users who are obsessive about feeds and RSS, not the average user who will visit your site or read your content via e-mail.
E-mail subscription plays this debate out of the equation. What does it matter to a reader reading your content in their inbox, in full, if you have truncated your RSS feed or not? It doesn’t. Furthermore I decided to truncate my RSS feed on SA Rocks (6 or so months ago). I had a couple, literally two, complaints about this but stuck it out and the visits to the blog were markedly increased.
Again this might not prove to be true on all blogs, but for me, it worked. Test out your users, ask them in a blog post and figure out what they want, it’s the beauty of blogging, you can ask and have people respond.
Remind your audience that your content is available via subscriptions. Spell it out in a blog post once every six months or so, remind them that the option is there. They might have become vigilant RSS users in that time and you can catch them now. This also serves as a helpful tip for new users visiting your site, the Googlers and Stumble crowd.
Finally, don’t forget to try and reward your readers for visiting and subscribing. Find a prize and give it out to your longest standing RSS or e-mail subscriber as well as your newest one.
Subscriptions are important to your blog’s continued success and longevity. Be sure to priorities these readers and this option.