I recently tweeted that I’m fairly convinced that the most valuable (and most difficult) metric to grow in online publishing is RSS subscribers. I’d like to explore that idea a bit further.

The RSS publishing experience

Over the past few days I’ve done quite a bit of investigation to see if my hunch about the value of RSS subscribers is correct — at least on my own site. Apart from just typing in the URL, there are currently three ways to subscribe to updates on my blog: Twitter, a weekly email, and RSS. I’d like to share some metrics on each of those methods.

Since Twitter doesn’t have analytics on links yet, I had to look at the bitly links on my main Twitter account as a proxy. On average, the clickthrough rate on links I post on bitly is between 2% and 3%. That’s really low. It’s also worth noting that bitly did some analysis that showed that the mean half life of a link on Twitter is 2.8 hours. That is an extremely short time before whatever you tweet pretty much disappears forever.

The weekly email performs a bit better. The open rate on that email hovers just under 20%, on average. That’s pretty decent, I think — certainly much better than posting links on Twitter.

On the RSS feed, the average reach (the total number of people who have viewed or clicked on the content in the feed) is 28%. This is by far the most engaged group of the three methods I provide to get updates on the site’s content.

From a publishing perspective, RSS subscribers are like magazine subscribers. When they invite you into their reader it means that they place some value on the content you create. They are also the people who share your content, and care enough to give constructive feedback when you suck. So if you have to look at metrics for your site or online publication, that’s where I think you should look for a reflection of its quality.

The RSS reading experience

I also want to make a few points about the RSS reading experience, and why I think it’s superior to other methods. There’s no way to keep up with all the links that come across my Twitter feed every day. But whenever I read something I like, I always go to the site’s home page to read some other posts. If I like the general theme I subscribe to the RSS feed and relax, because I don’t have to worry about accidentally missing a new post. RSS is a very “Slow Web” way of keeping up with content you don’t want to miss.

The other reason I’m such a fan of RSS is that it is a completely open platform (not Android “open” — real open). There are a multitude of ways to publish and consume feeds, and there is no lock-in whatsoever. This is why RSS has remained so strong. Dave Winer sums it up best, of course, in Protocols don’t mean much:

RSS won not because of its great design, but because there was a significant amount of valuable content flowing through it. Formats and protocols by themselves are meaningless. That’s what I say about specs. Show me content I can get at through the protocol, and I’ll say something.

Towards on open social network

I do see one big problem with RSS: there is no way to build a community around the people who subscribe to your feed. Feedburner tells me how many people are subscribed, and there is some basic aggregated demographic information, but that’s it. I’d love for RSS to give users the option to reveal their names and/or email addresses when they subscribe to a feed. This might sound creepy, but if it’s an optional setting (with an ethical default as private), I think this could be really powerful.

There are many sites that I subscribe to that I won’t mind if they know who I am. Publishers could use this information to kick off forums or email discussions around certain topics, organise local meetups, or any number of community interaction initiatives. For all this talk about “open” social networks, the idea of loose connections around an open protocol seems pretty appealing to me.

Or am I crazy?