The Happiest Moment in the RSS and Reader Marriage is in the Engagement

Over the weekend there was a huge buzz over new RSS subscriber numbers that Feedburner was reporting due to a change in how Google Reader was reporting their stats. The bounce was reported as high as 250% by bloggers like Jeremy Shoemaker to more average bounces of around 30% by bloggers like Stowe Boyd. My own bounce was 32%. The change has prompted many to begin to re-evaluate assumptions previously held for a long, long time. One of those was my own boss, Jeremy Wright, who mused, “Google is now, or is soon set to be, the world’s #1 feed reading software / destination / feature.”

Without losing the forest through the trees, FeedBurner has just let loose with some blistering analysis of the trend. And they are spot on. While the assumption is made that bigger is better, Feedburner examines the data and arrives at the conclusion that the motion of the ocean is actually significantly different.

Not all subscribers are alike. Yahoo reports active subscribers over a rolling 30-day period. Most other web-based readers report the total number of individuals who’ve subscribed, regardless of whether they have actually logged in recently.
Default feeds are popular. (Yes, this is an early frontrunner in 2007 “Painfully Obvious Bullet” balloting.) Said differently: many aggregators offer a set of default feeds for every new account, or provide “bundles” of feeds by category. These feeds will get disproportionately high subscriber numbers at specific aggregators.


audience-engagementPoint taken. Subscriptions don’t mean a damn thing if people aren’t actually engaging in the feeds. Since engagement is seen as actual clickthroughs, is it more important that feeds be subscribed to or read. Raise your hand if you skim headlines in your RSS reader? Me too, actually.

Which begs the question. Are subscriptions that are not read any better than the Movieline magazine I get in the mail and throw away?

An interesting data point from the FeedBurner report reinforces an argument that has been argued, particularly in the Full Feed/Partial Feed debates, for awhile. The analysis of audience engagement (clicks) shows that the largest number of clicks come from MyYahoo! which displays only headlines. Hear, hear for teasers!

This report is really an eye opener for me. There’s lots more juicy information in it that I can’t even begin to relate here. Go read it for yourself. However, it strikes me how many assumptions have been made and how ingrained the assumptions are and how wrong we actually are on so many different fronts. If the data in this report is valid, which I presume it is as close as it can be, Bloglines is pretty much insignificant. It’s significant in that it carries 33% of the web-based RSS subscribers, but when only 11% of subscribers convert, it becomes purely insidious as a reader.

I wonder, really, how our strategies will change as assumptions fly in the face of reality. I also wonder how many people cater to their RSS audience and encourage engagement from those readers. I personally have taken to better headlines and strategic first paragraphs as recommended by people like Brian Clark and following other good-practice techniques. It seems those great headlines convert pretty well and I don’t even have to pay attention to which reader they are using.

What will you do in light of these findings?

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

8 thoughts on “The Happiest Moment in the RSS and Reader Marriage is in the Engagement

  1. My favourite metric is conversions. I wouldn’t run my whole business on that metric though. Lifetime value is key. You might want to count other things but you run the danger of harming your long term value if you are not careful

  2. Presumably bloglines has a lower conversion rate because it has been around longer? In other words, had more opportunity to be abandoned.

    Interesting points on headlines/first paragraphs.

  3. But, does “conversions” really mean anything when you’re talking about feeds? Can you really capitalise in any way on people who have gone to the trouble of subscribing to your feed? They’re only coming to read a specific story, and your adverts have perhaps long since stopped registering in their brains.

    (I got a 20% bounce from Google, but my existing figures already included 25% from LiveJournal (actually a rather reasonable source of traffic – must actually check the exact numbers))

  4. I think the bigger question is: “What is capitalizing on user interaction?”

    The assumption is that capitalizing on user interaction is tracking clicks back to the source. But maybe that whole premise is flawed. Maybe.

  5. I happened to run across Google’s announcement just about the time it hit the streets. A day later my sunscribers soared from 6 to 18 by geezum! :P

    That’s okay though, the blog is only four month’s old, I work a day job, deal with a couple health problems courtesy of the service and am still working on the final layout and towards finding my own niche in things. Soon, I say, soon.

    Thanks for the comment by the way and the river is currently frozen over so tossing the cat just generally pisses it off when it bounces off the ice (besides, I like the little boneheads).

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