SPOTLIGHT ON… Mark Carlson from SimpleFeed

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Mark Carlson - SimpleFeed

Adrian: Do you want to tell us a little bit about what you were doing pre SimpleFeed?

Mark: I went back east to school at the Wharton School. After Wharton a lot of people go into the investment bank industry, which is what I did for six years. It all was fun and exciting work but six years of it was plenty. For the last 14 years, I’ve done start-up companies. My very first was an entertainment software company called Digital Pictures that was sold to Kodak. My second was an Internet privacy company, called Walk Softly. It was one of the first Internet privacy companies, which I sold to a public company called CyberMedia. And that’s kind of relevant to what we’re doing right now. In fact, I’ve always had a bit of a privacy bug.

Adrian: Tell us a little bit about SimpleFeed and what it does and why you started it?

Mark: SimpleFeed is an RSS publishing and analytic service for large corporations. We help companies create RSS feeds that look very nice, look like their website or their e-mail programs, as opposed to typical RSS feeds, which are like a line of text. We also help them measure what’s working, either in terms of subscribership or click-throughs or actually driving business results, like sales.

As for the origins of the company, through my various entrepreneurial activities, I knew a fair amount about XML. I started looking into RSS, which is based on XML, and really got excited about it. At that time RSS was very much about syndicating headlines from media companies to portals or about reading blogs. And perhaps because I had this Internet privacy background, for me it was about a way to get information delivered to you, very much like TiVo or like blackberry, without having to give an e-mail address. I thought, ‘this is going to be a great way for companies to communicate with customers and prospects who aren’t willing to give up their e-mail address.’ It’s not going to be something for every piece of corporate communication ever, but it’s going to be a big chunk.

Adrian: Is your suggestion that e-mail is a great channel but that RSS is an additional channel that can drive additional revenue?

Mark: Yes, we view RSS as a new communications channel that is complimentary to email. Very often the content that drives results with RSS is quite different than e-mail. It tends to be more about content that is very specific to the customer. It’s not so much about offers, it’s about what customers need to do their job or live their life. We can look at our first customer, VMware. Some of their most popular stuff is around new products, deep product information, blogs, podcasts, support information, security alerts, things like that. Content where there are great volumes of information (such as message boards) that you just would not want to send out through e-mail because you’d be hitting your customer with e-mail three times a day. Or maybe it is content that’s not of enough consequence to send out through e-mail but your hard core customers want to know about it. Through our analytics, our customers are able to understand what their subscribers like and tune their content strategy to drive business results.

Adrian: Any additional things you have on RSS verses e-mail that is going to be extremely interesting.

Mark: Maybe the best example is one of our customers, ad:tech. They’re aggressively promoting their e-mail program within the feed. This is a great example of how e-mail and RSS can work very synergistically. You give a person enough content and they get to a level where the trust is higher or they’re more interested in what you have to offer, then right within the feed you can solicit their e-mail address and up-sell them there.

Adrian: We have the web, which is the passive media you go out and get. RSS is the media that then comes to you but it’s not that intrusive. And then e-mail is the one that’s much more intrusive. And the RSS is a slow, more gradual way of building trust with users that will then trust you with their e-mail address?

Mark: Our very first customer referred to it as respectful marketing, or winning the trust battle with customers. Their specific problem is they market to a very particular audience – software developers and IT people. They were getting customers ranting back to them about e-mail because they’d send out marketing offers, promotions basically, to these IT guys.

Adrian: I’ve always found it a real pain, and even when you’d go onto the sign-up page where it’s so complicated to sign up for an RSS feed with all the different options. Is there going to be some consolidation there? Is this going to get simplified? And what do you recommend a reader to use?

Mark Carlson

Mark: SimpleFeed recognized this problem at its founding. For over two years we have used “checkbox” preferencing technology to make getting relevant content easier for subscribers. We also use landing pages customized to our customers with a variety of one click subscription options to make subscription easier. These have become best practices in the industry. But the exciting news is that the RSS reading world is about to change dramatically. Microsoft is building RSS reading capabilities into Internet Explorer, Windows Vista and Outlook. This is the seminal event in the world of RSS as RSS readers will be ubiquitous and far easier to use. There’s a very good RSS reader in the next version of Internet Explorer, which is out in Beta right now and will come as a service pack to Windows XP. Windows has a tremendous market share and when Feed reading is built in, nearly everyone will have one of these readers. When the browser senses the availability of an RSS feed, a little orange icon lights up on the navigation bar. And if you click on that icon you subscribe to the Feed. The navigation is bookmark-like, and the feed reading experience is excellent.

Adrian: You talked a little bit about the analytics. What kind of tracking are you able to do? You’re able to track opens as well as clicks?

Mark Carlson adtech simplefeed

Mark: SimpleFeed tracks subscribers, sign-ups, unsubscribes, content opens and click throughs. We provide this information based on a per subscriber, per Feed, per template and per content basis. We also report on Domains reading feeds, RSS Readers, and Search Engines spidering your feeds. We publish each feed through a URL unique to each subscriber and we track every link uniquely. Not just the link but also the URL that’s getting the link, ties to that exact person, so you can tell quite a bit.

Adrian: So you’re then able to report on individual users and you’ll be able to tell a company that someone not only opened this article but clicked on the link as well?

Mark: That’s right. Another interesting thing that we do for some of our customers, is write in a web analytics campaign ID into every one of those click-throughs. SimpleFeed is very good at measuring how many subscribers you have and what they’re doing with your feeds and so forth. When a person clicks-through back to the website, they land on the page, we pass the web analytics campaign ID and then you can drive hard ROI on your RSS program. So not only are there softer “respectful marketing” benefits, but it works for direct marketers as well.

Adrian: You’re tracking both opens and clicks. Are there any other fields that you’re able to track?

Mark: The default report is how many subscribers you have. The second report is every single piece of content you’ve ever put into the system, how many people read it, clicked through and so forth. The next report is how many subscribers you have per feed. We also report upon the RSS readers that your customers are using and the domains that they are coming from. Direct marketers can figure out who your customer’s ISP is and what company they work for and so forth. It helps you optimize your spend.

Adrian: How would that help us optimize our spend?

Mark: If you see that you’ve got a ton of readers using Google Reader or coming from Road Runner, whatever it might be, you can just choose to spend more money with those properties.

Adrian: And that’s the equivalent of the browser referrer information? Like when you’re doing web tracking from one site to the other, there’s always the refer URL, the site that the user came from. Is that the equivalent of that in RSS?

Mark: That’s a good analogy. We also track and report about what’s going on with the template. We publish every RSS feed out through a template, so there’s content and you come by it here in our system, which is why our feeds look very nice and professional.

Adrian: How does affiliate marketing work in the context of an RSS feed?

Mark: One of the great things about RSS is that you can use content, instead of a flashing banner ad for affiliate marketing. With SimpleFeed, an affiliate can create an RSS Feed with customized content. A lot of blogging software will, almost with one click, allow you to incorporate that RSS feed on your right sidebar. Alternatively, SimpleFeed provides the “code” to cut and paste into the affiliate’s web site. In either case every time a visitor to the affiliate’s site loads the page, the feed loads with it. For bloggers or smaller web sites, it is a source of fresh content. We also allow the affiliate to format the feed to match their web site. In addition, when they customize the feed they can provide their affiliate ID which we insert into every click through link. If a visitor clicks through and buys, the affiliate gets a commission. This is self service RSS affiliate marketing and it is ideal for ecommerce sites with large numbers of affiliates.

Adrian: You talk about people doing different types of testing and you mentioned that content has been working better than just offers?

Mark: With RSS as a communication channel directly to your end users for B2B marketing content seems to work a lot better than offers.

Adrian: Can you give us a case study of a B2C company that sends out an RSS update? How many clicks are they able to generate?

Mark: The content strategy of our B2C customers varies greatly. One of our customers, Lillian Vernon, publishes about once a week. We have another major e-commerce company who publish 50 times a week. It often depends on the content available. In the later case we take the same data feed they provide to the shopping engines and publish the product information through templates. So it’s a hard thing to draw in apples to apples comparison. In terms of click throughs, we have customers generating as much as 20% of their inbound traffic via their SimpleFeed RSS program.

Adrian: Is it working well for newsletters?

Mark: Yes, particularly for B-B marketers. We have software and semiconductor companies that put out newsletters via RSS. They also do a lot of training and promotions on training. It’s working well for newsletters.

Adrian: While there are obviously a lot of RSS readers out, there is a lot of open source software to handle this. Why would I come to SimpleFeed rather than just buying or downloading the open source software?

Mark: There is not any open source RSS publishing and anaytics software. However, there are a lot of ways to create a feed. You can do it through blogging software or increasingly enterprise applications will produce a feed. However, these feeds are typically a line of text and they are not measurable and they do not provide control over the publishing process. These shortcomings do not work for large corporations. I have discussed the analytics previously, but SimpleFeed is also really strong with producing templated feeds. Companies, particularly large ones, who made the large investments in their brand and so forth, want their communication to look very much like their website, to be more comfortable and draw you to the customers, and hopefully, sell more. So templated RSS feeds are a very big deal.

Adrian: Some e-mail services will allow you to add some seed addresses of theirs to your list, so they’re getting all the mail that you send out to your list and then, later, render it so that you can determine that it is being displayed correctly. Are you doing that to make sure it gets displayed in IAE and Firefox and all the other browsers out there?

Mark: We do that two ways. One is in our publishing system. There’s a preview of how your content is going to look. And the other is in what is basically a QA lab, where we have all of our customers and we have hundreds of RSS readers that look at it, just to make sure that something’s not blowing up. The big SimpleFeed advantages are around content presentation, ease of subscription and then analytics, so that the marketing person can get analytics very similar to what they’re used to seeing in their email or Web Analytics packages.

Adrian: When we send out an e-mail broadcast, we want to look up the number of unsubscribes to see how targeted or untargeted our mail was. You can’t do that with RSS can you? Do you just need to look at how many people choose to come back?

Mark: We publish out every feed through a URL that’s unique to every subscriber. If people stopped checking that RSS feed, you know they’ve gone dead. And then further, you can look at what their preferences were and look at what content they looked at or didn’t, and then start to figure out why people are unsubscribing. People unsubscribe a lot in the world of RSS because it’s so easy to do. On the other hand they opt-in a lot more, too since they don’t have to worry that their e-mail address is going to get sold. There is more velocity in and out.

Adrian: Is there anything else that we should have talked about that we missed?

Mark: There’s one other value area that some people really care a lot about. RSS seems to help with search engine optimization. People will take these feeds and they’ll paste it onto their blog, or web site, and Google will come through and spider those sites and see high quality inbound links back to your site. There are certainly benefits around that, and that gets a lot of people excited. Some of our e-commerce customers spend so much money on search, it’s just startling. If they can get just a little bit of organic help then it’s a very valuable tool.

Adrian: Any projections or any other commentary on what you see coming up in front in the world of RSS?

Mark: I think the RSS world is going to change tremendously in 2007 with the Microsoft products. That’s going to add extreme ease of subscription and with just everyone having it, whether they realize it or not. People won’t be talking about RSS anymore, they’ll be talking about subscribing to a website or maybe subscribing to a web feed or it’s all just going to get a lot easier and more people will catch onto the RSS bug. That will allow publishers to publish out more and more interesting types of content. Inside the firewall companies will also publish feeds of all kinds of information. RSS Publishing will start to include lots of different media types. Podcasting is the start of a trend. All kinds of video clips and so forth are being distributed out through RSS reads. It’s definitely the future.

Adrian Bye - MassMarketConsulting

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