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RSS Metrics: The Good, the Bad and the Invisible

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Metrics matter - it's rule #1 for marketing programs. If you can't measure the success of a program (whatever success means to you) then you have no idea how well it's working and whether you should invest in it, tune it, or kill it. If you can't measure it, you can't manage it. Simple, really.

So online marketers invest a lot of time setting up measurement systems for their online programs, such as Google Analytics for web sites and open / click through tracking for email marketing programs. It's even possible to get stats-addicted, endlessly micromanaging and tuning online programs while the bigger picture - and the bigger opportunities - pass you by.

But that aside, getting to know your basic metrics - and their trends - is fundamental. That's true for bloggers and new media sites, because we all feel good when our stats go up and feel in our guts when a key metric burps.

So how come the state of RSS metrics is so parlous? Most bloggers focus on their RSS circulation as the key metric, and the only other useful metric commonly available is reach (more on both these below). RSS services like FeedBlitz and FeedBurner give you that top line circulation number, even though it's almost certainly meaningless.

RSS Metrics: The Bad

Screeeeech. Rewind. Circulation is "meaningless"?

Yup. Not because the number isn't accurate. It's certainly the best number the relevant service can come up with, and it can be tuned or altered from time to time to "improve" it.

No, it's not because it's inaccurate (but, man, we can surely debate that until the proverbial cows come home). No, circulation is mostly rot because it's not a particularly useful metric to be tracking. It's analogous to the total number of email subscribers in your email list. As any decent email marketer will (or should) tell you, size doesn't matter; it's quality that counts. And quality is largely measured by metrics such as open and click through rates. In other words, it's how many recipients interact with your mailing that determine how successful each mailing is. Same with advertising - better targeting yields better response rates which, in turn, command higher prices. And so it should be with feeds.

RSS Metrics: The Good

So where are we in RSS-land? We have subscribers (or as we call it, circulation), the total (-ish) number of subscribers to your RSS feed, and then there is reach, which is a measure of how many of your subscribers have interacted with your feed. Reach is a good quality metric, as it tells you how much activity your feed is generating. While reach will vary from day to day and post to post, the trend in reach will tell you whether you are gaining or losing attention from your readership. Reach, not circulation, is what you should really care about.

The FeedBlitz RSS service calculates your reach on any given day by determining how many unique readers interacted with your feed (either opened it or clicked through). Useful, yes. But sadly reach, too, has its problems. Your reach total is probably under-reporting activity, because it has the same problems as email open rates: If the subscriber doesn't have images displayed you can't track the act of opening the email or reading the RSS article, because it's the call to the server for a tracking image that is counted. No images, no counting. Instead, for that subscriber, you have to catch them when (or, rather, if) they click through.

RSS Metrics: The Invisible

Here's where the bad news kicks in. Did you know that you are simply missing out on almost all subscriber clicks on your RSS feed? That you're not tracking the vast majority of these subscriber interactions?

It's true. Unless our invisible subscriber above happens to click through to the source article (usually by clicking on the post's title) - if they click on anything else - dollars to doughnuts you're going to miss them. And that means you're not getting the big picture at all. In fact, perhaps (or even probably) you're getting only a very small fraction of it. Why? Because you're not counting clicks on links that are within the post. If our invisible subscriber clicks on anything inside the post - anything at all - they won't be tracked and that subscriber's activity missed.

By way of example I offer you TechCrunch's RSS feed at http://feeds.feedburner.com/techcrunch (not to pick on TechCrunch, by the way; I'm just using a well-known technology feed to make my point).

TechCrunch, like most new media companies, liberally sprinkles its articles with links, some internal to the site and some to the third party sites mentioned in the post. Looking at the current feed I see the article R.I.P. Good Times: One Year Later - which has sixteen (16) links in the post, not including ads and FeedFlares (remember, you're accessing the posts via the feed http://feeds.feedburner.com/techcrunch not their website). TechCrunch has link tracking enabled via FeedBurner, and so the link back to the site via the article's title is tracked. You can tell because the link doesn't look like a TechCrunch site link; it has codes and funny characters (a tilde: ~ ) in it if you hover over it with your cursor / mouse pointer.

Not so those 16 links inside the post. They're regular URLs - no tracking. Now, let's say you're one of the bajillion people who subscribe to TechCrunch in your RSS aggregator. What do you click on? Do you click on the post itself, only to read exactly the same article online (only with more ads)?

Nah. More than likely you click on the links inside the article and head off to read about Sequoia Capital or the the deadpool or the crunchbase or whatever else is linked to in the post.

Which means that when you do that, the RSS feed metrics will under-record the feed's reach because your click isn't counted. The good folks at TC simply can't tell you how many of their RSS readers click on links inside any post because they're simply not collecting that data. And nor are you for your blog. If you extensively use links in your posts you're absolutely, positively, no-doubt-about-it missing out on feed-based activity.

If the likelihood is that these are, in fact, the links that are being clicked on by subscribers, can you imagine how much intelligence, how much useful information is being lost? Does that translate into lost revenue? Remember, if you can't measure it, you can't manage it. You're optimizing your online programs with massively incomplete information, and (worse) you don't even know how incomplete your knowledge is.

RSS Metrics @ FeedBlitz: Making the Invisible Visible

Wow, talk about burying the lead. Anyway, as of now, the FeedBlitz RSS service ALSO tracks internal links inside feed posts automatically. These links will appear on the RSS report and also make the reach figures larger (because we'll be capturing more activity) and more accurate (for the same reason). How much larger will depend on how often you use links inside your posts; the more often you add links within a post (I think TechCrunch, with double-figure counts, is fairly extreme) the better the metrics and the more likely you are to see your reach rise as a result.

As an example, read this article at http://feeds.feedblitz.com/feedblitz (why not subscribe while you're there!). Look at the links inside. Coded. Tracked. This will be the first article - possibly ever - on an RSS feed where I, the feed owner, will be able to see all the activity the post generates. Finally, fret not, SEO mavens: all the links are 301 redirects, giving you the full Google-juice benefit.

Better yet, if you use your FeedBlitz feed to power your email marketing, you get the same benefits too. This is a first for online social media marketing.


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Blogger Simon said...

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11:22 AM, October 15, 2009  
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Tom Townsend
Operation Hug-A-Hero

1:24 AM, November 05, 2009  

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