Truncated RSS Is A Bad Business Decision

from the respect-your-audience dept

A few years back, I wrote about why we had found full text RSS feeds to be much more powerful and useful than truncated RSS feeds. The reason that many sites push truncated feeds is the belief that it will force people to click through, and the ads on the webpage are worth a lot more than the ads found in RSS feeds. But it's a short-sighted view. Because what it's really doing is trying to push readers to do something that they don't want to do. Many of them use RSS readers because it's a more convenient way to organize and read the news they want. And, we found that by making life easier for our readers, we were able to get a lot more readers, and then that allowed us to put in place a better business model that didn't rely on trying to trick or force them to click through. This is the same debate as the debate over ad blockers. It's a question of whether or not you respect your community and want to add value for them, or if you just view them as dollar signs and feel you need to force or guilt them into doing stuff they don't want.

The full text vs. partial text debate is flaring up again as Gawker Media has just shifted all its blogs to partial feed blogs. From my standpoint, this makes it significantly less likely that I'll link to them, because I'm less likely to actually read through their posts to see if they're worthwhile. I'll stay subscribed, but whereas in the past I might read through an entire post before deciding it was worth writing about, now I'll only have a snippet to make that decision -- and that makes it that much less likely that I'll find their posts worth linking to. And that seems like a mistake.

Matt McAllister from The Guardian responded to Felix Salmon's blog post (the one linked above), and noted that when The Guardian moved to full text RSS feeds they saw their web traffic go up significantly. Admittedly, there may be other factors involved here, but it's yet another data point in favor of being open and making it easier for your audience and your community to engage.

What I think both this and the whole ad blocking discussion come down to is a question of how different sites look at and treat their audiences. If they feel they need to take a short-term view and "monetize" every interaction with them, or if they realize that there's a long-term value in building up a strong and loyal relationship. It's also quite similar to the constant debates over the music industry -- where the music industry feels that it wants to get paid pennies every time you hear a song. That's the short-term "we have to monetize every use" view, compared to the longer term view, which recognizes that free songs and building up a relationship between the fans and the musicians can lead to something much more lucrative that benefits everyone.

But the key point is made by Salmon in his blog post about this. Others like to accuse Salmon and myself of supporting things like full text RSS feeds, letting people use ad blockers and being against paywalls as "a sense of entitlement." Of course, since I'm on the publishing side of things, I don't see how that actually applies to me since I'm defending the rights of the community of readers over short-sited publisher decisions. But the real reason why we think these (well, for RSS and paywalls -- I don't know Salmon's view on ad blocking) things are important to understand is that taking the simplistic view of trying to maximize short-term monetization is a bad business decision in the long term:
At heart, my argument for full RSS feeds is similar to my argument against a NYT paywall, and neither argument has anything to do with a sense of entitlement on my part. Instead, both are simply bad business decisions. If you truncate your RSS feeds, you'll get less traffic than you had with full feeds, and you'll alienate an important minority of your audience. And if you implement a paywall, the increase in subscription revenues will fail to offset the decrease in ad revenues, even as you'll alienate lots of your audience. So neither makes commercial sense.
Exactly. All of these are decisions that don't take into account the bigger picture or understand the overall dynamic of a community. They assume that each transaction is a single impact: if this user doesn't "pay" a site now, it's "lost revenue." But it doesn't take into account that that user might "pay" in other means -- via a comment or by passing it along to others. And what if that individual is influential and passes it on to a lot of people? It blocking off that possibility because that individual doesn't "pay" by ad or paywall seems incredibly short sighted and quite disrespectful of a community.

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  1. identicon
    Steve, 12 Mar 2010 @ 7:28pm

    I'm just one person, so this is totally anecdotal, but I've made it a habit recently to stop subscribing to sites that only provide partial feeds. It's just too much of a nuisance to want get half the story one way, and half the other.

    Really, though, how many times do you ever see users saying "please give me less?" It's always the management that is saying "this is better" and trying to explain how it is, with nobody buying it.

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