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Anatomy of an RSS Breakthrough


Diet Coke's recent online campaign, "On a Lighter Note," sheds light on the future of RSS advertising in an integrated campaign. While much of the advertising world, including myself, were pondering ad opportunities within RSS feed readers, Reuters was quietly closing a deal with Diet Coke to push RSS into banner ads. Since only a small fraction of the internet audience use feed readers (three percent, according to an August report from JupiterResearch), applying RSS in banners on heavily trafficked websites should extend the technology's reach.

RSS: a quick refresher

RSS, short for "really simple syndication," is a technology developed in 1997 that allows users to subscribe to data feeds via free feed readers. Typically, a user subscribes to a specific news feed from publishers. For example, you could subscribe to the "Technology and Science" feed from BusinessWeek, "Media and Advertising" from the New York Times or any number of other feeds.

At its core, RSS is a way for users to siphon specific data streams from the greater online tide. For advertisers, it had represented a niche targeting tool (some publishers allow text ads to be served within feeds). But the technology has grown up as Diet Coke, with help from Reuters, found a way to push RSS beyond the feed reader.

News content brings unique challenge

Reuters is a publisher with an advertising approach similar to most content providers. You'll find evidence of this deep within Reuters' advertising unit.

"I run a team that's all about creative solutions for advertisers," said Daniel Bernard, Global Head of Advertising Development for Reuters. "How can we leverage the Reuters.com site globally to help advertisers communicate their message… and how can we do it in innovative ways that are different than standard advertising executions?"

The difference between Reuters and most content providers is the type of content they provide.  Reuters provides news, but the news isn't always good, and that creates a unique challenge. Simply put, most advertisers don't want their messaging associated with disasters, scandal and other bad stories. And no one can blame them. "There's difficulty," admits Bernard, "so we try to find creative ways to make it work for everybody."

When Diet Coke came to Reuters they were, "interested in doing some type of campaign on a news site that would reach the kind of audience that Reuters has to offer," said Bernard.  However, "they were a little hesitant to be around news that wasn't fantastic." 

RSS solves the problem

For Diet Coke, Reuters devised a way to match the "softer news" they were already collecting with the product's image. Using an RSS feed, these news stories were served into Diet Coke display ads across the internet. 

Beneath the message, "On a Lighter Note brought to you by Diet Coke," internet users could read headlines like, "Cereal may be best breakfast for the waistline," or "Inspired by wheelbarrow, BIC sells 100 billionth pen." After clicking on one of the headlines, users would find themselves within Reuters.com at a Diet Coke-branded page.

"Basically, this content is already on our available roster, it's a matter of pulling it into one area and creating a user experience," said Bernard. "But we did something really cool and different… which was allowing an advertiser to use that content within their own ad unit to create an interesting type of campaign."

Perhaps most interesting about this campaign is not the pairing of RSS and display advertising, but the pairing of Diet Coke with Reuters; or even Diet Coke with this type of advertising innovation. "If IBM did something like this, no one would be surprised; people would expect it," says Scott Witt of Starcom MediaVest. Witt is group director, digital for Coca-Cola city, the unit within Starcom that handles Coke duties. 

"Prior to us conceiving this relationship… you really gotta dig to find and architect a strategy that both [Diet Coke and Reuters] can benefit from," Witt adds.

A broader, integrated campaign

Diet Coke and Reuters didn't stop at mixing RSS with display advertising and branded news pages. In today's fracturing media environment it takes more than a clever mix of technologies to reach consumers. For the On a Lighter Note campaign, there are a number of additional touch-points:

  • Mobile: Users could download On a Lighter Note applications to their cell phones. These applications allowed users to pick up On a Lighter Note RSS feeds from anywhere they had a cell phone signal.

  • RSS Feed Readers: On a Lighter Note RSS feeds were available for subscription via feed readers.

  • Outdoor: The Reuters sign in Times Square ran On a Lighter Note content.

Reuters describes this integrated approach as the "One, three, 10, 1,000-foot experience." This translates into cell phone, computer, iTV (Reuters feeds interactive content onto iTV via Microsoft Media Center) and the Reuters Sign in Times Square. "The beauty of it all is that it's the same content being leveraged across multiple platforms," said Bernard.

Consumer, not technology comes first

While innovation and an integrated approach are important for any advertising campaign, MediaVest's Scott Witt is quick to remind us that reaching consumers is the ultimate goal. 

"I'd like to be careful how we position Diet Coke as it relates to technology," said Witt.  "Technology is definitely just the enabler -- and it's the back seat enabler -- for what was really important about this which was bringing that really emotionally uplifting news content to the sophisticated consumer."

At the time of our interview, MediaVest was unable to disclose figures on how successful On a Lighter Note was in connecting with consumers. "We've actually got a study in market now that's going to connect those dots for us," said Witt. Though he added, "the most important thing for us… is reminding ourselves that there aren't always benchmarks when you're setting the new precedent… it's a fun and exciting place to be, but not everything is a home run, and that's okay."

From both Reuters' and MediaVest's perspective, the very fact that a partnership was forged was success enough. "Our biggest win was to win a client like Diet Coke," said Peter Dorogoff, U.S. Media Relations for Reuters. Added Witt, "that Reuters and Diet Coke have come together and done something very special.... I think the value of that is just tremendous and priceless and certainly has more staying power than any type of clickthrough rate or reach/frequency number or webpage hits."

As numbers become available regarding the On a Lighter Note campaign and success is quantified, greater innovations in RSS and integration are likely. Already, Reuters has experimented with RSS in banners of its own. Also, NASDAQ worked with Reuters on a campaign similar to On a Lighter Note. 

While MediaVest's Witt could not comment on any specific new campaigns from his agency, he noted that, "there's pockets of innovation on every floor, and it would not at all surprise me if other clients within the portfolio began looking at some of the successes of this particular campaign and wanted to try as well." 
Additional Resources:

Feeding Market Growth with RSS

Media Maze: RSS-Sense

Mario Sgambelluri is managing editor for iMedia Connection.

Another outlet for web widgets that is often overlooked are personalized homepages. Microsoft's Live.com, Netvibes and Google are just a few of the sites that offer anyone the opportunity to deploy a widget that appears to users as a personalized web portal. To many users, this page is what they consider "the beginning of the web." At the very least, every new browser window opens with your brand holding a piece of that screen real estate.

Aside from the obvious benefits of making a brand accessible through internet start pages in terms of reach and frequency, there is a tremendous PR upside. Web widgets like these tell a story of brand innovation and accessibility that practically writes itself -- for both the brand that develops the widget and the web platform.

Let's take a look at Slide.com as a way to understand the underpinnings of a well-done web widget:

The most popular widget out there according to comScore's April widget ranking, and Brittany Lawson's recent iMedia article, has, like most popular widgets, a very basic and singular idea at its core: an easy way to make a web-based slideshow out of your pictures.

Most people can't make their own Flash picture slideshows, but Slide.com solves a basic problem. They provide the functionality (an easy way to make slideshows on a website), and you provide the content (your pictures) and the promotion (sending people to view pictures on your site). They also do the coding legwork for you depending on the social network you need to put the movie into. And since Flash can handle video and audio, Slide has created ways to connect brands and users together through its own platform.

The easiest way to understand how Slide works is to think of it as a site that makes very small Flash websites. A user goes to the site, creates their Flash movie via the interface and saves it.

This is the key: they have to save it at Slide.com. As I mentioned, this is not John Q Public's MySpace slideshow of the family trip to the Yukon, featuring "Because of You" by Kelly Clarkson. It only feels that way. In reality, it is "Slide.com presents John's slideshow and Kelly Clarkson."

Slide ultimately retains control of the brand presence, creative assets, advertising, functionality and everything else through the life of that widget, and the tens of millions of others just like it.

If you're currently creating Flash banner ad campaigns, you're really not that far away from having your own widget network. The only missing pieces are the overarching Flash framework to "do it yourself," and a user administration structure for registration and serving the individual widgets. Of course, this is an oversimplification, and there are a lot of facets to consider as you build a system like Slide. The point is, you shouldn't be overwhelmed by the prospect of creating a web widget. You're probably already on your way there.

Desktop widget platforms
While social networks and blogs have their own web-based platform for widgets, the top four tech heavyweights have created their own platform for hosting widgets on your computer's desktop.

First, let's cover the basic concept here. Take the same rich media utility created in web widgets and actually present that web-based content directly on a computer desktop. This widget is downloaded as a mini-application within a tool that allows users to manage a group of widgets on their desktop.

These widgets are much more practical and personal in their utility. Take a look at Apple’s top five widget downloads, and you'll see a widget to search and play videos from YouTube, a widget to monitor your computer statistics (like your processor temperature and your internet download speed), a chess puzzle and a widget that shows movie trailers at theaters near you.

When you combine the personal nature of desktop widgets with the persistent presence created by having real estate on a user's desktop, these widgets are a hard bet to lose on. By finding a way to extend the utility of your brand in this technology, you are locking down a personal, everyday connection with the brand in a way few other media can match.

Even more than icing on the cake of this marketing equation are the aforementioned heavyweight players. Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google have all developed their own platforms and free distribution websites -- completely free advertising directly to the people that have these platforms on their computers.

Understanding each of these platforms is where the terminology really starts to bog down, so please hang with me as we navigate this sea of jargon together:

Having the most mature audience, Apple's widgets reside in the Apple Dashboard, a feature built in to the operating system that shows you all your widgets at the press of a button. The nice thing about Apple widgets for marketers is that while they don't command an audience as large as Microsoft, there are still many millions of users in the golden circle demographic of high HHI families who are extremely familiar with using widgets on the platform, and Apple promotes it heavily.

In fact, as Apple gains momentum from iPods and iPhones converting into desktop computer purchasers, making widgets from any web page viewed in Safari is only a few simple clicks away.

For the pro-am set that prides itself on creating home movies, websites and podcasts through built-in Apple software, there's also Dashcode, a program that makes building dashboard widgets significantly easier for novices. It's not a force yet but a very interesting integrated approach by a company that seems to always be a step or two ahead with an affluent audience that grows by the day.

Not to be outdone, with the release of Windows Vista, Microsoft rolled out its own dashboard product also directly tied into the operating system. Microsoft made the sidebar – an area off to the side of your desktop for holding the four or five most important "gadgets" (to differentiate them in name from Apple widgets).

Microsoft has programmed -- in one decided advantage for users and marketers -- that you can drag gadgets out of the sidebar to reside on the rest of the desktop. Once a user drags a gadget onto the desktop, the gadget is no longer limited in width or height, and brands can plan for that -- with the sidebar version providing "at a glance" utility, and expanding the features and functions in a larger canvas with different design that comes into play once the gadget has been "undocked." This is a great feature, and a win-win for users and brands alike.

The sidebar also has live.com and dedicated real estate on certain new-gen Microsoft websites within which you can load web versions of these sidebar widgets. You also can't beat having exposure to the largest desktop audience on earth.

The biggest drawback of Vista sidebar is that unlike the Mac Dashboard, in some versions the sidebar doesn't automatically load when it is installed. The user has to find it and turn the sidebar on.

That being said, it's still Microsoft, so even as a niche product within the system, it still will have a fairly large reach (even though that's what they said about Active Desktop in Windows XP).

Here's probably the most interesting path to a widget platform. In the beginning of widget platform time, there was Konfabulator: the first widget platform. Its success is what spurred Apple to make its own platform and include it as a major feature of its operating system. That was when Yahoo took notice and purchased Konfabulator, making it available for both the Mac and PC, renaming it Yahoo widgets.

Since then, Yahoo has done a lot to try and get wider adoption of its platform, which users have to first download before any of the widgets work. What Yahoo does have over the other platforms is a serious effort to make creating widgets as easy as possible for the development community. This alone may prompt some agencies to tout Yahoo widgets above others.

I simply haven't seen evidence to suggest that large audiences are willing to go through the hoops necessary to add this platform into their habits. If you're technical enough to understand the premise and use it regularly, you have two robust solutions for the Mac and PC that are already installed and ready to go. But I've been proven wrong before. If you're someone who works with Yahoo on the widget platform, please feel free to leave your comment below and correct me.

Google desktop
What Google has done with its widget platform is to make a play for all widget platforms on the desktop and across the web. The "standardizing" I mentioned earlier about OpenSocial really means making the Google desktop programming method consistent across the vast majority of social networking sites.

So, while I sat wondering why Google would create Google gadgets -- basically a stripped-down widget platform -- they were using it as a pivot foot into commanding the web widget space, and then taking that momentum back to the desktop.

Short open letter to Rupert Murdoch: Google is about to grab a huge chunk of all your MySpace real estate. For free. Best, Michael.

Desktop widgets
Even the makers of these widgets have changed the way we refer to them. We used to call them branded desktop applications (BDAs), but no more. We got too many blank stares. People just want to call them widgets.

Where web widgets go on websites, and platform widgets go into a group of widgets on the desktop, desktop widgets are their own application. They stand alone, independent of the web or a platform. One download and the widget is always on the desktop (yes, you can minimize it, or open it from your desktop tray). And more than the value of desktop persistence (how much would it cost to put a logo in a corner of a TV screen all day?) is the control over that piece of the desktop.

Desktop widgets can be shaped and sized in any way imaginable. They can be updated seamlessly, with no need to download a new application. They provide a fluid, two-way channel between the user's computer and your brand. You can send messages or content instantaneously. You can see metrics as granular as individual mouse movements, and individually identify each application without taking any personal information. That means you can micro-target messaging to the individual, in real-time.

The funny thing about desktop widgets is that we use a few of them all the time without realizing that they are nothing more than brands extending themselves to the desktop.

My favorite example of this is iTunes: 

iTunes does three things well: it creates a place where you can search your music collection, it plays MP3s and connects to an online store within the desktop widget that works almost exactly the same way you've already learned to catalog your own music.

Most of all, it is a giant Apple desktop widget. A big reason why iTunes will continue to dominate over other online music stores is the perceptual space desktop widgets take advantage of. As a marketer of a website, you're not only competing with all of the other websites in your sector, you're competing with all the other websites in the daily habit of your audience's internet usage. That's a really tough nut to crack.

On the desktop, accessing web-based functions, like buying songs, feels nothing at all like navigating to a website to do it. It feels so much more convenient and consolidated, and you never have to touch the browser at all.

Another great example is Joost:

While all the press on it has cooled since beta testing started, you cannot count this video viewer out.

What puts Joost in such a desirable position is that as a desktop application, much higher quality video is possible without draining bandwidth. Unlike YouTube or any other web-based video site, Joost's user computers and the Joost server share the task of balancing bandwidth and processing.

When you compare the quality of YouTube video versus Joost, well, there is no comparison. It just shows that the key to Joost lies in the next three years.

Eventually, quality will matter to people looking for video on their computer. And as bandwidth and computer storage become even more accessible and cheaper, the masses will be seeking a solution just like Joost. Luckily for them, Joost will already have the brand equity to start a step ahead of the competition.

As a side note, these advanced capabilities had me very interested in how Bud.tv was going to implement its widget. But that promotional "coming soon" message has unfortunately disappeared from the site since it was redesigned. It's too bad, too. That may have made the difference between a struggling video channel and a vibrant channel with a dedicated audience.

Not to confuse the subject further, but Joost even has its own widget platform within its application. Again, the audience is small, but Joost is just waiting with its doors open for the moment when the masses have the capability and the desire to see high quality video on their desktop.

These are just two examples of audio and video brands having incredible success with the desktop widget as a competitive differentiator.

The question for brands is: how do you leverage the web-based functions along with the convenience and power of the desktop to create a powerful presence?

Well, it starts with understanding your audience and the utilities they need or the tasks that are being underserved in their daily habits. It may not even be a function of your brand, but a service your brand presents to users as a convenience.

If your audience is made up of social networkers, what are the ways you can make their most tedious, repetitive tasks a bit easier from the desktop? If they're savvy seniors, maybe a desktop widget with larger graphics and type?

What widget is right for your brand?

Maybe all three. As you can see, each type of widget gives you different, compelling avenues to reach different audiences. The key is working with agencies experienced in these media to make the best connection with the needs and habits of your audience, and your reach/frequency goals.

Maybe the biggest lesson learned from "The Year of the Widget" is that there is a significantly large and varied audience for widgets of all flavors. The challenge is how to build the channels that will supercede web presences in terms of importance to brand equity and the utility you provide your audience to interact with every day.

iMedia features a wealth of articles on the topic, and you can see our video introduction to branded desktop applications here.

Michael Leis is VP of Publishing Dynamics. Read full bio.


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