What Blogs, Podcasts, Feeds Mean to Bottom Line

New research shows just who blogs, listens to Podcasts and uses RSS/XML feeds.

The average consumer of blogs, RSS/XML feeds and Podcasts is male, earns big bucks and, in the case of Podcasts, is a youngster—all good to know if your company is thinking about jumping into the blogosphere, according to new research from Jupiter Research.

Thats an elite group to market to, but its a tiny group. In a June survey of some 4,000 Internet users, Jupiter found that over the past year, only 11 percent had read a blog monthly or more frequently. While thats a small percentage, it does show healthy growth; in 2004, for example, only 6 percent of those surveyed regularly read blogs.

Those who are hooked into Podcasts are an even smaller group, with only 7 percent of those surveyed having downloaded or listened to a Podcast regularly in the past year. RSS or XML feed junkies are the most elite group, with only 3 percent of respondents reporting that they regularly receive information through these channels.

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The demographics of whos using these new technologies paints a portrait that looks like that of the Internet in its early days, at least in terms of gender and income level. Those who regularly use RSS/XML feeds,Ppodcasts and blogs are most likely to be what Jupiter calls "super Net vets," or online users with more than 5 years of Internet tenure; are male, and have annual incomes of $75,000 or more.

Older people like their feeds, while younger users are tuning in to audio: RSS/XML feed users are most likely to be in the age range of 35 to 44, while blogs and Podcasts are most appealing to people between the ages of 18 and 34.

They all spend money online, however, at a greater rate than those who eschew these technologies. Of RSS/XML users surveyed, 89 percent said they regularly buy stuff online. Of regular blog consumers surveyed, 77 percent purchase goods and services online, while 69 percent of Podcast aficionados regularly buy online. That compares with 62 percent of the total online population who do so.

Diane Clarkson, the lead analyst on the report, titled "Content Technologies: Identifying Marketing Potential of Corporate Blogs, Podcasts, and RSS/XML Feeds," said that the impetus for business to move to these technologies matches the size of the current audience.

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"I think theres recognition that these are technologies that will grow in the future, and there are commercial benefits, especially with companies that have fast-changing price information," she said. "But usage numbers of people listening to them is so small, the impetus to move ahead and invest heavily is not universal."

At this point, 30 percent of companies with $50 million or more in annual revenue have deployed RSS feeds, according to the report, while another 28 percent have indicated they intend to offer RSS feeds this year.

Companies with rapidly changing content may find that feeds generate sales and drive Web site readership, particularly when audiences are made up of impulse buyers. For example, Continental Airlines now has a feed to promote vacation packages, while American Express is testing feeds to advertise special events and travel updates.

In addition, some companies are using feeds to save money, since RSS/XML feeds are less expensive to publish and deliver than e-mail. Feeds wont replace e-mail anytime soon, though, given that this content delivery mechanism cant be personalized and targeted like e-mail can, Clarkson said. "The way it looks and feels is very different in traditional e-mail marketing," she said. "The disadvantages are greater in many ways."

Until the masses adopt the technologies, businesses wont pay much attention, Clarkson said. For the masses to embrace them, they need to get a whole lot more user friendly, though. Microsoft Corp.s move to refer to RSS as "Web feeds" is one example of how to make RSS more user-friendly, she said, but theres plenty more than remains to be done.

"Its a little disconcerting for somebody who doesnt know what it is to click on the little orange box and doesnt know what theyre getting," she said. "It looks like something technical."

When companies do start embracing these content delivery mechanisms, they should be careful not to get themselves into hot water. Inherent legal risks include disclosure of trade secrets or material misstatements that could lead to a breach of security laws, for example. Companies can also find themselves responsible for employees who post defamatory content about third parties or who publish a third partys intellectual property.

These risks are particularly great for companies whose employees are publishing personal blogs, Clarkson said. While successful blogs contain content thats expertise-related or contain product tips and news—such as General Motors FastLane blog, which appeals to car enthusiasts—such blogs can be risky. Companies should therefore set corporate guidelines that spell out what can and cant be said, she said.

"[They] may talk about their day at work and can get into trade libel" or other such infractions, she said. "Its very, very easy to have [good intentions] and inadvertently say something that could expose a publicly traded company to some issues around security fraud, for example. All you have to do is make one material statement."

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