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Can RSS find a place in e-commerce?

Business, Technology

Our big audacious goal at Appozite is to make it easier for everyone to find products that fit their tastes. This means we’re interested in anything that will make product discovery and shopping better, faster and smarter. In many cases, like the $6 million man, we have the technology. Unlike Lee Majors, we’re not using it. One of those underutilized technologies in e-commerce is content syndication via RSS and Atom. (I’ll say “RSS” from here on out but I’m using that as an umbrella term for all feed technologies.)

Jenn started this conversation over on Appozitegeist and makes a great case for how RSS can replace annoying bulk marketing emails from retailers. She also has quite a bit to say about how difficult it’s been to get uptake of RSS from the general population. Like cold fusion or the hydrogen car, it appears to always be just over the horizon. I won’t repeat those topics here but I do want to discuss what a great fit RSS is for the standard e-commerce data management model as well as for its business model.

One place where RSS has undeniably found a home is on blogs and news sites. There’s hardly a news site left that doesn’t offer a feed of at least top stories, if not a section-by-section breakdown of headlines. This is perfect for RSS because there’s frequently updated content as new posts and stories are added. Though news sites seem worlds away from selling products, I think e-commerce sites are actually very similar. To bring people back to a store, retailers must offer fresh content in the form of new products or promotions.

In both news and e-commerce applications, the data is highly structured. Just like blogs and news sites which use content management systems to continually update posts/stories containing headlines, by-lines and text which exist in categories; most e-commerce sites of any size have administration software for updating product data consisting of names, descriptions, prices, inventory quantities and other attributes. Products are, of course, also segmented into categories. In short, what works in the news business should also work in the shoes business. (And, look at that, Zappos does offer a “latest styles” RSS feed.)

From a technical perspective, it’s pretty straightforward to take a structured data system like this with discrete update events and efficiently generate feeds for products and categories as the data changes. One interesting (and architecturally more complex) extension to this would be feeds generated based on a user search term. Users searching a site for something but aren’t quite ready to buy can subscribe and be notified when new products that match that term are added or changed.

From a marketing perspective, this ought to be a no-brainer. Targeted subscriptions chosen by users (especially around search terms) certainly seem like they would have high click through rates. So what about the issue of RSS and feed reading not being mainstream? Pheedo, an RSS marketing agency, broke down RSS reading data back in 2005 and noted that many readers were in the 18-24 demographic. It’s unlikely that those users have changed their habits drastically since then and it probably is likely that younger users have continued to read feeds. That probably means we’re now looking at an 18-27 demographic of heavy internet users (which tend to be better educated and more affluent than average) who would potentially be interested in feeds. This starts to look ideal for many retailers. Yahoo! also noted in a white paper on RSS usage that quite a large number of people use RSS without realizing it on home pages like my.yahoo.com and iGoogle.

Of course I’m doing a lot of handwaving here. There are plenty of details about measurability that need to be covered and more research to do on whether or not there really are enough RSS users out there who want to include e-commerce feeds in their shopping arsenal to make it worth the technology investment. However, I think e-commerce providers should take another look at RSS to help them get better, stronger and faster.

PS: In the course of researching this blog post, I found a lot of interesting stuff about RSS uptake but it’s somewhat outside the scope of this post. I thought I’d provide a bit of a link dump here in the hopes it would be useful to people:

1) Two of the most popular online feed readers (a good proxy for RSS usage), Bloglines and Google Reader, are both growing fairly rapidly but from a small base. Compete shows Bloglines traffic increased by 172.8% year on year to May.

2) Mobispine and FeedBurner have a few things to say about the state of the RSS market in 2007.

Hayes @ July 1, 2008

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