New Tech for Old Folks

February 04, 2009

Posted in Web Industry.

About three years ago, we launched a website where the main audience was ages 40-65. One of the exciting “new” features we offered was an RSS feed.

Everyone knows that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, right? Okay, that’s not fair. But RSS isn’t exactly gaining a lot of mainstream steam.

We use Feedburner to track our subscriber stats, but almost as cool as stats is the email subscription feature. See, almost everyone does email. Even my wife’s grandparents use email (if only to forward nearly everything that shows up on Snopes).


Check it out – over 90% of the subscribers come through email. RSS is all about people getting your content the way they want, and I can’t imagine a better example than letting non-feed reader users subscribe to a feed via email.

If users wanted content sent by carrier pigeon and someone offered a free (or really cheap and humane route) carrier pigeon service I’d put that out there, too. So pretty much every site that I put out there gets an email subscription form. It’s a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you?


  1. oak — February 06, 2009

    i had a variation of your last paragraph in my original comment but deleted it because i couldn’t tie it off properly.

    Safari 2.0 (i think without doing any research) had RSS built into the bookmarks bar. When you opened it for the first time there was a pull down menu with prominent news organizations powered by RSS. Apple also has a screen saver that works in similar fashion. I think you can subscribe to sites and have the headlines flash up at the top of Gmail if you want to as well. (I turned it off because of a funny story that is beyond the scope of this comment).

    The point is that the idea of “subscribing to content,” is as at least as old as printed media and it’s a concept most people intuitively understand. (In my case since the first issue of Ranger Rick arrived in the mail when i was 7. Or 18, I can’t remember which).

    I see the plateauing of RSS (if it’s happening at all) to be more of a marketing problem then a lack of interest. I think the future will belong to this kind of personalized syndication, but it might have to be bundled into phones and browsers and televisions and netbooks before people use it.

  2. oak — February 05, 2009

    I suppose it’s possible that RSS has peaked, but the entire history of the internet over the last 15-20 years, it seems to me, should stand as a cautionary tale about proclaiming the death of much of anything.

    What the blogger you referenced fails to account for is that blogs and sites are starting to push RSS very aggressively. As you surf, pay close attention to how prominent are the RSS links on the blogs you visit.

    Your sample set is (as you know) extremely old…but they still all use email, a completely new technology that has almost universal adoption among online users in only about 10-15 years. How fast do you think email went from 3% adoption to 11% as the Forrester report described in the blog you linked to says RSS has done? If you had asked people who had spent decades hand writing letters and hadn’t tried email in 1997 if they were interested in it would you expect many of them to say “hell yeah?”

    Yet here we are.

  3. chas — February 05, 2009

    I didn’t proclaim the death of anything. Maybe RSS adoption isn’t growing, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going away.

    Email gained 90%+ adoption in its first 20 years, with 50-55% using it daily. It was a game-changer. Email is easy to grasp, but it’s actually passing out of favor with younger readers (being replaced by SMS texting, the favorite for teens). (Some quick stats.)

    RSS (or Atom) feeds aren’t exactly new. The concept (in one form or another) started around 1995 and has been in wider use since 2000. I couldn’t find data to compare with the first 10 years of email, but given that RSS growth has hit a plateau I can’t imagine it’s going to explode that much.

    The first problem is that RSS is abstract – it’s tough to explain quickly. With email, you have to use an email program. RSS can be consumed in a lot of ways; hence my point in the post. If you look at those blogs prominently displaying their feeds, they’re often including buttons for popular readers or email subscription forms – not just their feed URL. Users don’t care about the technology, they just want the benefits.