Freakonomics’ Last Word On Partial RSS Feeds

A few weeks ago I analyzed Freakonomics’ dilema over its subscribers’ protest of the blogs’ move from full to partial RSS feeds, inherent with its new partnership under the NYTimes online umbrella. Yesterday Freakonomics coauthoer Stephen Dubner explained their final decision not to revert back to full RSS feeds, at least in the short term:

But can’t they [NYTimes] sell ads on a full feed, so that feed readers can still get all the content they want delivered to their computers for free without having to visit a single web site? The short answer is yes, they can, and our friends at FeedBurner, who have been distributing our feed, created a great business by doing so. But the Times and its advertisers aren’t crazy about this option. (Nor are they alone, apparently.) Why? This is the fundamental point: many advertisers do not value feed readers as much as they value site readers, since they believe that feed readers are far harder to measure and track. (The folks at FeedBurner have a different view, of course.) In a perfect world, would we prefer to be sending out a full feed, with advertising? Yes. But is that preference overridden by a preference to have a partnership with the Times, and all the opportunity that entails? The answer here is also yes. Is it possible that the full feed will eventually be offered again? Once again: yes. Are there strong and sane opposing views on this issue? Absolutely. You can read, for instance, what TechDirt wrote about full feeds potentially creating more site traffic, not less. There’s another interesting view at Online Spin and another at

(Note that Stephen cites my Online Spin column as a counterpoint to his decision!)

I disagree with the logic, and as I said in my original analysis:

If people are granting their attention to an information source, they’re essentially doling out of one of their most valuable and scarcest resources. In a world where no publisher has a monopoly on good content, people increasingly expect publishers to respect their scarce attention by delivering them intended content in the most efficient and pleasant means possible. Partial feeds that require you to jump to a separate browser window, outside of their RSS readers, tend to be obstructive and annoying. It’s like receiving an email with an unnecessary PDF attached, versus having the content embedded in the email. As many have noted, it can result in declined, irritated readership, especially with greater mobile-device adoption.

So the million-dollar question is: How should publishers…interpret and act on such community feedback? On one hand, this vocal group represents only a minority of the overall readership. On the other, their minority status may not matter because it is these very people and their passion that help make the Freakonomics blog alluring in the first place. They make it alive, and their presence is disproportionately more valuable versus the passives. Audiences are no longer just about aggregating lifeless content consumers. Today, we must now consider reader participation, a powerful proxy of engagement. Participation now is content itself, and the glue that binds audience into meaningful community.

Regarding the lack of ad metrics in full feeds, it is true they may be slightly less comprehensive than with actual site visitors. Still, the feed metrics are very good, and only getting better, thanks to FeedBurner (which I use to syndicate my content on AttentionMax). Moreover, my hunch is that RSS subscribers are disproportionately more valuable and otherwise harder to reach. If you’ve got them, nurture them!
Scott Karp passionately weighs in:

But they are just putting off the inevitable — rather than fighting the hard battle of monetizing full feed content, i.e. the hard work of pulling advertisers into the future, which I know takes time (sometimes a long time), they are opting instead to shrink the audience, i.e. cede all of those readers to the competition — which makes those readers IMPOSSIBLE to monetize, ever.

FeedBurner has made revolutionary strides in enabling publishers to attach advertising to content distributed via feeds, and to make both the consumption of the feed content and the ads measurable and trackable…I know (almost) exactly how many people read Publishing 2.0 via RSS. I know how many use Google Reader, Bloglines, etc. I know how many people viewed each of the items published in the feed, and how many clicked through to the site. When I was using FeedBurner’s Ad Network, I knew exactly how many impressions for which campaigns were served and how many clicks each ad got…Sure, I know less about those people than when they visit the site, but the issue is not how much less, or what types of advertising I can do in the feed vs. on the site. The issues is — what’s the alternative?…Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

And Amy Gahran at said:

Seems to me that, as media organizations learn to adapt their operations and business models to online media, they’d do well to learn how to make money from feeds (yes, you can put ads in feeds) as well as educating advertisers to make ad content more inherently valuable and engaging. Also, properly distributed full-text feeds make your content much more findable via all kinds of search engines and aggregators, potentially leading to increased page views well after initial publication.

As long as we keep trying to lure people to sites where they’re forced (or at least, more likely) to view ads that they’d rather avoid altogether, we’re fighting a losing battle. As the blog Techdirt put it recently, “Taking value away from users to try to force a specific action is almost always going to be less desirable than providing people what they want.”

In the end, I greatly respect Stephen’s attentive listening and ongoing interactions with the very audience which has protested so fiercely. I encourage you to read his succession of posts and comments because I think they represent a great case study in how an organization and a brand should listen and react to its community of stakeholders.

I also wish luck to the Freakonomics team, because at the end of the day, they’re still producing a great product at relatively low cost to readers (exposure to advertising is the cost of admission — but in this age of attention scarcity, exposure is not immaterial, but still tolerable in this case), and they’re making a bet the move will inch Freakonomics to the next level.

As for me, I’ll continue to subscribe. I suppose my readership — click-through from partial feeds to full posts and depth of attention — now will hinge on the ability of the authors to write very good teases for the partial feeds which I will regularly receive in my reader. My readership also also will be influenced by whether I happen to be reading via my mobile device, where the slower connections encourage me to avoid click-through on partial feeds to originating Web sites. Time will tell.

Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment