eCommerce and RSS

// // January 11th 2009 // eCommerce + Marketing + Technology

Are eCommerce sites overlooking RSS?

RSS still hasn’t hit the mainstream, but could eCommerce sites help drive RSS adoption and at the same time increase the effectiveness and reduce the costs of their communications with customers? Yes!

Too many eCommerce sites seem to believe that the only place for RSS exists if they have their own blog. And lets face it, many don’t have the bandwidth to produce a decent blog. It’s a resource drain and one that many find hard to explain during budget meetings.

Yet, most eCommerce sites already have blogs, they just don’t know it. They’re called newsletters. So the time and effort argument is irrelevant.

Why push newsletters via RSS?

Most eCommerce sites use email as their primary method of communication. Yet, email has three big (and growing) drawbacks: deliverability, over saturation and cost.

Deliverability issues persist as email finds its way into spam folders or bounces due to changed email addresses. A 2007 Internet Retailer survey indicated that only 40% of respondents experienced 90%+ deliverability. And a 2008 Return Path report showed commercial deliverability at 88%.

Just like the old direct mail world, people move … a lot. Here’s the data from Jupiter Research (2008) and Return Path (2007) respectively.

17% of Americans create a new email address every 6 months

30% of subscribers change email addresses annually

Part of the deliverability problem is over saturation. Email marketers have overused the medium, flooding mailboxes to the point where users feel overwhelmed. The result has been a steady decline in open rates, from nearly 40% in 2003 to 13% in 2008.

eMarketer Email Marketing Open Rates 2007-2008

Many eCommerce sites have increased the frequency of email to respond to declining open rates. The open rate might be low on each email but if you send six emails a month your total open rate might wind up being pretty good.

Yet, there is incremental cost associated with this increased volume. Not only that but it contributes to the over saturation problem which negatively impacts open rate and effectiveness. It’s a vicious and costly cycle in which eCommerce sites wind up paying more for less.

The advantages of RSS

RSS solves most, if not all, of the deliverability problem. There is no spam filter or black list. I’d also argue that you’re less likely to switch readers than email addresses, thus reducing the churn rate of your subscriber base.

Email has become unncessarily intrusive and ephemeral. An email will be pushed ‘below the fold’ of a person’s inbox with greater speed as the volume of email a person receives increases. The adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is apt in this instance.

Over saturation might be an issue in RSS but the format is a more ‘on demand’ type of solution. TV networks are starting to understand this, that forcing people to watch their show at 8pm on Thursday might not be optimal. Similarly, RSS allows subscribers to engage with your content on their own terms.

Subscribers will still get an inbound notification that new content has arrived, so you’ll still see an immediate (though perhaps less pronounced) traffic surge. And the content will have a longer life due to increased delivery and visibility in the reader.

Did I mention RSS would be radically cheaper than email? Leaps and bounds cheaper really.

But didn’t eCommerce already try RSS?

Yes and no. When RSS first arrived on the scene there was a big ruckus about how RSS could replace email. The problem was marketers didn’t have a clue how to really make that happen. Most didn’t even use RSS and found it confusing at best.

I speak from experience. I was smack dab in the middle of it all as Director of Marketing at Alibris. I sensed that it had potential but I didn’t fully grok RSS until later on, after I’d left the eCommerce space.

The topic was a blip on the radar at conferences and no one really wanted to upset the applecart. Email was a solid performer and search was the shiny new channel.

So any attempts made in those years were premature and uninformed for the most part.

Why could RSS succeed this time?

If eCommerce sites began to understand that RSS could help them achieve their goals they could be a force of change for the technology. RSS needs to be relaunched, rebranded or both. Who better to do that then those in the business of selling.

In addition, the reader market has matured and stabilized. I see no reason why Google wouldn’t want to partner with major retailers and offer their customers an easy (perhaps cobranded) way to start using RSS using Google Reader.

Finally, RSS can be used more creatively by eCommerce sites. In a tough economy, why not let users select products and create a price watch feed? Or let users subscribe to reviews of a product to help them through the sales cycle?

Email versus RSS

email vs rss

The revenue stream from email has obscured the growing cost of the channel. I don’t know of a single eCommerce retailer who really ‘likes’ their email service provider. The time and money dedicated to producing and sending email seems to grow and not shrink.

Yet, instead of looking at new ways to communicate with customers many simply look to ‘fix’ email or find another service provider. Deliverability in particular has given rise to a number of new businesses. That should be a clear signal for change.

I’m not saying eCommerce should abandon email, but the ones who figure out RSS will have a marked advantage.

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