Full Or Partial RSS Feeds?

Last Wednesday, on vacation, I opted for an air-conditioned coffee shop versus the 98-degree beach. Considering I was on August holiday with a little downtime, I decided to switch RSS readers, moving from Bloglines to Google Reader. While reevaluating and transferring my feeds (thereby reducing my subscriptions by half, down to about 100 now), I caught up on one of my favorite blogs: Freakonomics. Incidentally, Freakonomics announced a partnership within the New York Times online. The move included a switch from full to partial RSS feeds, and the spirited reader comments became the basis of my latest MediaPost column:

Freakonomics Sparks Debate Over Partial RSS Feeds

By Max Kalehoff, August 10, 2007

Freakonomics, the addictive blog examining the “hidden-side-of-everything,” just partnered with The New York Times, moving under the flagship brand’s online and editorial umbrellas. Congrats to the coauthors, celebrity economist Stephen Levitt, and his articulate sidekick Stephen Dubner. Freakonomics is a pioneer and its move into the NYTimes underscores the value and importance of niche, blog-format content in 21st-century publishing, not to mention lively, opinionated content.

Beyond the sharp writing — an unconventional mix of economic observations, analysis and commentary that tend to strike a chord or challenge assumption — it’s the very active Freakonomics community that makes this Times acquisition so important. Just review the comment section of virtually any post. The number of comments range anywhere from a dozen to the hundreds – usually pithy, entertaining and passionate. They’re aplenty, and they can suck you in.

Not surprisingly, it was Dubner’s recent post announcing the move to the NYTimes that fostered especially vibrant discussion, both congratulatory and protesting. On one hand, many cheered Freakonomics’ upgrade into the esteemed

NYTimes stable. However, roughly six hours after Dubner published his announcement, roughly 100 of the 120 comments were in protest of Freaknomics’ move from full to partial RSS subscription feeds, forcing feed subscribers to begin their flow and then abruptly transfer attention to the NYTimes site via a separate browser window!

A sampling of the comments in Dubner’s post underscores the dilemma that online publishers face as they adapt to a more open Web, heightened competition, attention scarcity, savvier readers, rising expectations and RSS syndication:

Blake Hill said: “I have used Google Reader for about 2 years now and I have added many blogs to my feed. I subscribe to blogs because I like the content, but I have noticed I only end up reading about 10% of the partial feeds and remove them from my feeds eventually. I trust that you and the NYT are smart enough to figure out a way to monetize your content and still offer full feeds.”

A commenter named Brian said: “I love the book and the blog. However, I agree with what seems to be the majority (at least commenting) that I lose interest in feeds that are not complete. You are not the only blog dealing with this decision. For instance, John Battelle made the decision in April to keep full feeds after pondering a move to excerpts.”

A commenter named Kurt said: “Partial feeds defeat the purpose of RSS. If I were happy browsing to NYTimes.com every day, I wouldn’t need the RSS feed in the first place. With such a clear technical solution available (inline ads, for example), please don’t sell the RSS community short.”

What’s behind the avoidance of partial RSS feeds? 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.

In the case of Freakonomics’ move to the NYTimes, I’m sure a thoughtful, informed decision was made to adopt partial RSS feeds — one that considered the NYTimes expertise, the authors’ vision, site analytics, bandwidth, search impact, ad-serving and ad inventory, promotion and branding among a myriad other factors.

So the million-dollar question is: How should the Freakonomics authors and NYTimes — and publishers in general — 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.

So, should publishers revert to full feeds? In Freakonomics’ domain of economics, this is largely a question of incentive. I can’t speak for Freakonomics and the NYTimes. But in most mainstream publisher cases, I think the answer lies with the vocal minority: Yes!

What do you think?

Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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