Attention Is the Real Resource

Jason Snell — editorial director at Macworld — wrote an interesting piece on his personal site regarding full-text RSS feeds, prompted by Merlin Mann’s piece last week regarding The Atlantic.

Snell writes:

RSS doesn’t generate revenue directly. There are ads in RSS, sure, but they’re cheap and lousy and don’t have remotely the return as ads on web pages. The question is, if you publish all your content in RSS, does the resulting drop in traffic get offset by the fringe benefits? In the mind of some — presumably including Merlin Mann and John Gruber — you may lose a small percentage of tech-savvy people, but those people tend to be the ones who pass links around to friends and on their blogs and on Twitter, and a lot of those people will come to your web site from there, so in the end it’s a net benefit. Plus, more people will care about you and your brand and that’s a good thing.

I agree, that’s good. I wish someone could cite some studies that prove that giving away your full-text RSS doesn’t hurt traffic, but helps it.

It should go without saying that what works for me here at Daring Fireball, as a one-man show, may well not work (or work nearly as well) for a large operation with a full editorial staff such as Macworld. But: DF’s RSS feed, which contains the full content of the site, not only generates money directly, but has grown to become the single largest source of revenue on the site.

The ads in most sponsored RSS feeds are indeed cheap and lousy. The ads in DF’s RSS feed are neither. They’re priced at a premium, and have attracted (if I do say so myself) premium sponsors.

What is “traffic”? I suspect Snell is talking about page views. When someone loads a web page in their browser, that’s a page view. Most advertising on the web (but not all) is sold using page views as the metric — advertisers pay an agreed-upon amount for every thousand page views on which their ad appears.

When I switched DF’s free public RSS feed to full-content in August 2007, DF’s web page views had been growing steadily month-to-month. After the switch, web page views were stagnant, with no growth, for about a year. (If anything, they went down in the first few months.) But readership clearly continued to grow: subscribers to the feed skyrocketed. And, about a year ago, even web page views started growing significantly once again — going from a little over one million per month to a little over two million per month.

If you’ve got a model where revenue is tied only to web page views, switching to full-content RSS feeds will hurt, at least in the short term. The problem, I say, isn’t with full-content RSS feeds, but rather with a business model that hinges solely on web page views. The precious commodity that we, as publishers, have to offer advertisers is the attention of our readers. Web page views are a terribly inaccurate, if not outright misleading, metric for attention. Subscribers to a full-content RSS feed are among the readers paying the most attention, but generate among the least web page views.

A reader asking for a full-content RSS feed is a reader who wants to pay more attention to what you publish. There have to be ways to thrive financially from that.

(I could go on, which is good, because my friend Jim Coudal and I are speaking together on this very topic — online advertising — at SXSW next week. Our session is at 3:30pm Sunday afternoon.)

Update: Jason Snell’s thoughtful response.