Advertising in RSS feeds

I had an epiphany about this subject at 39,000 feet on my way from Seattle back to Nashville on Sunday. Bear with me here, because this is likely to produce a knee-jerk, negative reaction. After that, I encourage you to think about it.

We had a good discussion about this at Gnomedex on Saturday during a panel with Feedster’s Scott Rafer, PubSub’s Bob Wyman, and Bloglines’ Mark Fletcher. I tried to make the point that I’d much rather see the solution for advertising in RSS come from the tech (user) community than Madison Avenue. That’s because advertisers have no problem intruding on experience in order to “serve” their needs. This is offensive to me, and I’ve been preaching against it for a long time. Pop-up ads, e‑mail marketing, the flashing and blinking of banners, and now fancy forms of interruption via Flash all work together to destroy the online experience. This is why we so strongly object to the idea of ads in our RSS feeds. We consider RSS our last bastion of sanity from the marketers of the land, and we resent the idea that this — even this — will be turned over to marketers. With me so far?

Here’s my epiphany: The Web is new, and we’ve been trying to use old methods to make money. It’s like the Biblical mandate not to pour new wine into old wineskins. What we need is a new way of viewing everything, and I think the secret lies in the content that we are delivering, not in the frame around the content (the print ad model) or commercial interruptions (the broadcast model). We must be open to selling some of that content space, if we want to make money, and RSS is the perfect vehicle in which to do this.

To illustrate, consider the blog of, say, Lost Remote. This popular inside-TV blog produces many daily entries that are received throughout the day in my RSS reader. These are listed in a descending column, based on the time of the day they’re received. What if one of those entries itself was from a sponsor? Remember, I have the power to read it or not. It can be clearly marked as an ad, so someone coming to the Website would see it as such, but it would be delivered to all subscribers as a part of the feed.

To me, this is the ultimate RSS ad solution, because it:

  1. gives the user control over whether to read/participate,
  2. is not intrusive,
  3. is easily measurable for the client,
  4. opens the door to a whole new realm of creative for advertisers,
  5. makes for better site design — away from clutter,
  6. uses the nature of the medium instead of borrowing from others.
I’m going to be experimenting with this in the near future, because I believe it is a viable business model. I like especially the idea of advertisers speaking in a conversational language and offering something relevant and that fact that it’s non-intrusive. If you don’t want to read it, you simply mark it as read or move on.

Good ideas aren’t birthed in a vacuum, not even at 39,000 feet, so I suspect others have already had similar thoughts. Of course, the same is true for bad ideas, but I think we shouldn’t be afraid of experimenting in this realm. If we don’t do it, who will?


  1. Matt C. Wilson says

    I think it’s working. I’ve been subscribed to Scientific American’s feed through ( for a couple months now, and they deliver ad posts in with article posts. I’m not sure if NIF is providing the ads, or SciAm, but either way they are clearly marked and unintrusive.

  2. Makes sense. This is what does to finance their RSS offering (i don’t know whether profitably or not).

  3. It goes along with the notion talked about during Gnomedex of giving the power back to the subscriber and not with the distributer. And with the example of Scientific American — which is axtremely credible — it’s good to see it can be viable. I think the key will be in the relevance of the ad.

    BTW — Great talk on Saturday, Terry! I’m really excited about the work you are doing.

  4. We’ve been doing that at PaidContent for several months and I think it works well. We insert one sponsor ad per weekday; usually corresponding with the newsletter sponsor for that day. It’s a valid, non-invasive way of providing an ad-supported feed — and making sure the advertisers for the site and newsletter don’t miss potential traffic. In the future, we might try sending out a sponsor post every x number of posts — every 10 posts, for instance. The ads inserted into every post or between every post risk becoming wallpaper, clutter and/or distractions from the editorial content.

  5. Matt C. Wilson says

    Yes — I think Staci has a very good point here. The ads I’m getting on the SciAm feed have a frequency of roughly two/week, where the articles are daily. I absolutely agree that alternating ad/article posts is too repetitive and will probably not have the desired effect.

    I would also recommend rotating the ads — don’t show the same one twice in a row. I think there’s almost a kind of anti-frequency principle at work online: the less often something has been seen, the more interesting it is.

    I’m reminded of a former co-worker who was obsessed with Orbitz’ flash game banner ads (one was volleyball, sink a put in an airplane mini-golf hole, etc.) He would refresh a page featuring such an ad religiously in hopes of a new, different game ad coming up, and would be disappointed if the site had no new alternatives. Just a thought.

  6. I think this is a brillant way. I’ve long thought that a sponsorship was the way to go with a blog especially one that doesn’t talk product or technology. It’s how a company can associate itself with a diverse portfolio of personalities, any one or more touching an emotional spot binding people to the company in a way never possible before.

    Interjecting a sponsor ad every 10 posts that’s fed through an RSS feed, letting each person to decide whether to read it or not.

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