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RSS: Drink the KoolAid

(Adapted from a post to Web4Lib.)

At My Place of Work, we have had an email list for close to a decade. The list now has 16,000 readers, and has all the problems email lists have–subscribers who get dropped, whose messages go into spam, who forget what address they are under, etc.

We had our first RSS feed up in January 2004, and then we got our own native feed a few months later. The return on investment is startling. It’s always hard to say for sure how many subscribers you have with RSS, but in Bloglines alone (which we heavily promote because it’s free, easy, and Web-based), we have over 4,000 subscribers. Not only that, but 3.8% of the accesses to our server are now to our RSS file. Not only that, but 11% of LII users found us in the last year, and slowly but surely are coming from outside the narrow pool of librarians who hear about LII through word of mouth or presentations. RSS has been a terrific outreach tool that finds people where they are, as opposed to hoping they find us.

In terms of maintenance, RSS has also been, knock on wood, almost problem-free. At one point, after a server migration, a smaller feed we maintain got mangled, but it was quickly fixed. Plus I have not had one case of anyone writing us to say that they didn’t like it, had technical problems they expected us to fix, etc. etc. I’d like our feed upgraded to RSS 2, but I can live with RSS 1 for now.

We have been returned a thousandfold for what we put into RSS. In my career, heck, in two careers, I’ve spent far, far, far more for much, much, much less. We plan to make more use of RSS this coming grant year–subscribing by topic, podcasting our blurbs, maybe even user-defined feeds.

In terms of what things cost to do, my experience with libraries is that you could spend more money having meetings about whether to implement RSS than in actually offering it. I can promise you RSS costs far less to administer than our email lists.

Note that the key is not to get your users to understand RSS… but to use it. You don’t care if they understand they are getting a valid, well-formed XML feed yadayadayada as long as they are automagically receiving their new book lists and whatnot. Keep it simple. Make it tasty. Draw them in.

Many people have not heard about RSS, but what is startling is that for a technology still ironing out its standards, it is being adopted fairly rapidly.

Maybe next year RSS will not be the “thang” any more (although I don’t think so). I don’t care. Right now, for negligible overhead, RSS is bringing users to our site and helping them drink our KoolAid.

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