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Measuring your blog and RSS success

Blogs and RSS feeds are the rage, but how do you know if they are working? Even veteran interactive marketers can be stumped by Web feed metrics. How do you know if the RSS feed of your blog posts is being read—and, more importantly, acted upon? Precise measurements are not possible yet, but you do have a few techniques to take a good guess. Like anything you do, measuring your results is critical to achieving (and continuing) success. But where do you start? With your marketing goals, that’s where. Check out what you can count in this month’s Biznology newsletter.

What’s Your Marketing Goal?

Are you trying to raise advertising revenue for your content? Increase brand awareness for your products? Drive higher sales? Focusing on your basic goal for your blog or feed will help you decide what to count.

As with any interactive marketing, you may want to measure three basic user events:

  • impressions. the number of times your content is shown
  • clickthroughs. the number of times your content is clicked
  • conversions. the number of times your visitor buys your product (or completes whatever task you wish them to)

If you’re monetizing your blog with advertising, what you count depends on the what gets you paid. CPM advertising pays by the impression, while per-click advertising (such as Google AdSense) pays by the click.

If your blog is designed to raise brand awareness, you may want to measure impressions—it shows how many readers have been exposed to your message. You may also want to measure clickthroughs, because that shows even deeper brand learning. For RSS and other Web feeds (such as Atom), you can also measure subscribers—they may have the highest regard for your brand.

It might seem odd to think about measuring feeds for increased sales, but many companies are beginning to syndicate their product catalog in Web feeds, not just blogs. If you’re trying to increase sales with your feed, you’ll want to measure conversions, but you’ll need to measure impressions and clickthroughs so that you can improve conversions. If your conversions are low, for example, it might stem from low impressions or clickthroughs. Counting conversions requires a Web metrics system that uses cookies, JavaScript, single-pixel GIFs, and other tricks. Counting conversions is no different with RSS feeds than for any other content on your Web site, so we’ll focus on impressions and clickthroughs here. We’ll also focus on blogs designed for advertising revenue, because they pose the thorniest issues.

Of Blog Readers and Web Sites

The first complication in measuring blogs and feeds are in the way that users receive the information. Feeds are sent to subscribers using a reader (sometimes called a blog reader or RSS reader or feed reader). Subscribers can see the entry in the reader—that entry may be the entire entry or just a short excerpt. If an excerpt, the subscriber needs to click on the entry to go to a Web site to read the whole thing.

As a feed provider, you can decide whether your feed contains complete entries or merely excerpts. This basic decision is often hotly debated. If you’ve placed Google AdSense ads on your Web site, you may want to provide excerpts only, because you need subscribers to click through to your site before they see the ads. If you provide full feeds, subscribers might read entries in their entirety within the feed reader, ensuring that you’ll receive no revenue for your paid ads.

Some decry the use of excerpted feeds, however, maintaining that your subscribers should be able to stay within their feed reader without having to bounce back and forth to Web sites to see the complete entries. Some experts claim the trend is more and more tofull feeds.

To address this trend, a new form of advertising has appeared that embeds ads within feeds. Google AdSense for Feeds, for example, allows paid ads to be placed within an blog or other RSS entry—these ads can be read without the subscriber leaving the feed reader. Other companies, such as Feedster, have taken a different approach, embedding ads as separate entries in their own right—these can also be read from within the feed reader itself. Chris Redlitz, President of Feedster, says that this approach “allows the best user experience” (by providing full rather than excerpted entries) while still monetizing the feed for the feed owner. Feedster recommends that no more than one post in three be an advertisement and Redlitz claims 0.3% to 1% clickthrough rates on the ads.

Predictably, some bloggers are now coming under fire for “double dipping“—embedding ads within their feeds and on their Web pages.

Counting Subscribers

The most basic metric for RSS feeds is the number of subscribers. Feed owners want the largest circulation possible, just like a newspaper or magazine, regardless of what their marketing purpose is. But how do you count subscribers?

Most blogs and other feeds allow the subscriber to choose the format of the feed (providing buttons for XML, RSS1, RSS2, or Atom, for example), which makes it harder for the feed owner to count the number of subscribers. Feed aggregation companies, such asFeedburner, have arisen to solve this problem. Feedburner and it competitors provide a single subscribe button for you to place on your site, with Feedburner providing the best format to each subscriber’s individual feed reader. Because all subscribers go through Feedburner, the feed owner can be provided with statistics to show the number of subscribers, for example.

But it’s not so simple, unfortunately. Yahoo!, AOL, and other companies often aggregate feeds for their subscribers, so that when an AOL user subscribes to a feed, AOL might provide that feed from its own cache of feeds rather than alerting Feedburner. While an efficient way of providing feeds to subscribers, it guarantees under-counting of subscribers—possibly by 25%.

Counting Impressions and Clickthroughs

Veteran marketers know that for banner ads or paid search, measuring impressions and clickthroughs isn’t tough—whomever you buy the ads from does it for you. And Google, Feedster, and other will happily count them for you here as well.

But what is the definition of an impression? Do you count one impression for every subscriber? That seems wrong, because you can’t be sure that all subscribers actually read each blog entry, but maybe that is the best assumption we can make.

Clickthroughs can be counted by your Web metrics system as page views, and are less problematic than impressions. Because we saw earlier that segregators such as AOL make counting subscribers difficult, if we are basing impressions on subscribers we have a problem. Some companies are rumored to investigating the use of single-pixel tracking code to settle the impression question for good. Until then, know that the metrics you are using to measure blogs and RSS feeds are not entirely accurate, but inaccurate counting can at least be used to spot trends.

Clearly, we are still at the beginning of measurement of RSS feeds and blogs, but enough tools are available today that you don’t have to stay in the dark.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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