Measuring RSS and your Internet/Intranet effectiveness

Summary:Based on a recent e-mail I received, word is starting to get out that ZDNet is running an auction on eBay that awards the winning bidder some audio advertising space in the IT Matters series of podcasts that I host.  Normally, it goes against every rule in the editorial book here at ZDNet for someone like me to be discussing one of the company's advertising initiatives, but in this case, I'm crossing the line because I think its for a very worthy cause.

Based on a recent e-mail I received, word is starting to get out that ZDNet is running an auction on eBay that awards the winning bidder some audio advertising space in the IT Matters series of podcasts that I host.  Normally, it goes against every rule in the editorial book here at ZDNet for someone like me to be discussing one of the company's advertising initiatives, but in this case, I'm crossing the line because I think its for a very worthy cause.  Through the Save the Children charity, all the proceeds from the auction will go to help child victims of the recent tsunami. 

The e-mail I received was in response to a segment of the auction posting that discusses the medium of podcasting and whether or not there's any value in it to those who might consider sponsoring it.  It's a business-model question -- one that I'll be addressing when I speak during a session on podcasting at next month's Syndicate Conference in New York City.  The text of the auction segment says the following:

Winning bidders should be aware that podcasts are not a measurable medium. For winning bidders, ZDNet will not be able to measure the performance of their sponsorships (for example, no information on the number of people who listened will be available). 

The e-mail was from Syndicate IQ's Stuart Watson, who believes, to the extent that podcasts are delivered through RSS, there is at least some data that those operating in the medium of RSS can use to make certain business decisions.  The problem with RSS is that it's all about subscription and says little about actual consumption.  If you have visited my home office recently, you'll know what I'm talking about.  On any given day, there's a collection of the last few days' worth of newspapers sitting on my front porch.  I subscribe to a local paper and, on any given day, I might have the time to open it, but more often than not, the paper just ends up going from the porch to the recycling bin,and I've only glanced at a headline or two.

RSS is no different.  I subscribe to so many feeds that I cannot possibly read all the content that gets piped into my RSS aggregator (I use Radio Userland).   So, I do what a lot of other people do: I scan the headlines and some of the summary text and, sometimes, I click through to get more details.  In a text environment, technologies like Syndicate IQ's make sense because, using unique URLs, they can help to distinguish subscription-based traffic from people who ended up on ZDNet  by some other means (our e-mail newsletters, a search engine, etc.).  As far as I know, without some modifications, the logging technology that comes with most of today's Web servers is incapable of making these granular distinctions.   Moving forward, as more content publishers -- be they individuals through their blogs, media companies through their content management systems, or businesses that are pushing corporate messages through their intranet out to employees, customers, and partners -- will need tools like Syndiate IQ's in order to measure the effectiveness of their messages. 

On the intranet front, RSS really makes an enormous amount of sense as a way to not only distribute knowledge, information, and company news to employees, but to measure how effective you are at getting that message out.  One trick that media companies use to really tell whether RSS subscriptions are converting into readership (and to get readers onto ad-displaying pages) is to make sure that not all of the text comes through the RSS feed.  To get the complete story, readers must click through.  For companies running Intranets, there are pros and cons to doing it this way.  On the con side, it forces the "content consumer" to take additional action to get all of the information and this may not always be optimal for that reader (for example, if they're on a mobile device or even worse, have gone off-line completely...like on an airplane). On the upside, when readers click through, that registers in your Weblogs (or, if you're using Syndicate IQ's services, on its logs) and you can study the correlation betweeen RSS subscriptions, subscription-driven traffic, and traffic that's driven by other means. On the intranet front, this could help in knowing how well the messages that you're distributing to the organization (or your partners or customers) are actually penetrating the target audience(s).  On the Internet front are companies who need this data to build their businesses.

With Podcasting however -- at least as long as it's all audio -- you lose that opportunity to pick up the all-important and all-measurable click-thru.  Even though podcasts rely on RSS for distribution, they don't show up in an RSS-feed (nor are they processed) in  the same way that clickable text does.  In fact, if you've got your setup completely tricked out, the audio from podcasts simply shows up on your portable MP3 player (which, unless we're talking about an interactive media format like Flash which is only supported in a handful of portable devices, is definitely not clickable). 
 
Under the hood, instead of the way text rides into your system in an XML file and that text works its way into your RSS reader (click-thru capability and all), the only information that rides into your system for podcasts is the URL address (on the Internet) of the audio file (the podcast).  As long as your RSS client knows what to do with this information, it then goes out and automatically fetches the entire file and follows whatever rules you may have set up for audio files that are fetched in this fashion.   This is very much like the rolled-up newspaper that's been sitting on my porch for a few days.  I'm subscribed to it.  It's arriving where I want it to arrive.  Like the newspaper where I can see some headlines, I can even see the names of the podcasts displayed in my media client (Windows Media Player or iTunes) or on my MP3 player. (I'm testing an iRiver H320.)  But what happens next is anybody's guess.  On a daily basis, I have about 10 podcasts showing up in my MP3 player.  At most, I'll get to two of them.  Maybe three if I've got a long flight ahead of me and my PC runs out of battery life.  The rest, like the newspapers on my porch, go to the recycling bin.

At the very least, even with the technologies we have here at CNET Networks, I can tell how many people are subscribing.  But, absent of knowing how many people are listening, I'm not sure what that's worth when you consider the fact that it's so easy to subscribe and unlike with most newspapers, it's free. (The implication is that if someone is paying for the content, it's a stronger statement about the content's value to the subscriber.)  Given the dramatic rise in the popularity of podcasting, it'll be interesting to watch exactly how people try to truly measure "eardrums" (as opposed to eyeballs) in a downloadable medium like podcasts.  I suspect that we'll have to resort to gimmicks like contests and giveaways as one approach.  Or maybe, technologies that help people find specific parts of a podcast like TVEyes Podscope can help provide some insight into what people are listening to. 

Whether you're with a company considering the distribution of podcasts for internal communications or a media company exploring the business model around the medium, I'm interested in hearing your thoughts as the mid-May date for the Syndicate Conference approaches.  Feel free to use the Talkback below, or e-mail me directly at david.berlind@cnet.com. (If you're going to use e-mail, please do so after April 24.  I'll be on vacation until then.) 

Topics: Browser

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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