Before we begin, a very quick thought exercise: What do you think of when I say “Subscribe To This Blog”?
The reason I ask is simple. When I first started blogging heavily, “subscribing” to a site meant simply one thing, taking the RSS feed of a site and reading it in an RSS reader. It might have been a software RSS reader or a Web-based one, such as Google Reader, but the process was the same.
The only exception was a few sites, such as those using Feedburner, that offered email-based subscriptions, but those two were based on the RSS feed and automatically generated from it.
However, today, it means something very different. If you look at the top part of the side bar on this site, not to mention my own and countless others, you’ll see more subscription options including Facebook, Twitter and more.
“Subscribing” to a site is no longer just about the RSS feed but about connecting with it in the most convenient way possible and that is drastically changing the way visitors consume a site’s information.
Just Some of the Methods
Today, if I want to subscribe to a site, I don’t have to go to the RSS feed directly, instead, there are a myriad of ways I can do it including:
- Twitter: With more and more bloggers getting Twitter accounts and using it to tweet out their new posts, Twitter is an easy way for existing users to follow a site.
- Facebook: Though bloggers should be reconsidering their relationship with Facebook, Facebook provides “Like” pages and, with such a large user base, is a convenient way for others to read your site’s updates.
- FriendFeed: The social aggregation site is also useful for following a site as well as all of the blogger’s other sites.
- LinkedIn: Popular with businesses, Linkedin allows others to follow your site and receive updates.
While all of these means are very convenient for readers, it also creates a lack of exclusivity for the content. For example, while most people will at least glance at their entire RSS reader, very few read every single Tweet.
This clutter comes from two different sides. First, there is the fact that many other users are mixed into the same stream and the fact most people don’t just post blog content to these feeds. For example, FriendFeed includes content from all sites and accounts operated by the same person.
While this is not bad news per se, it does mean that subscribing to a site does not mean as much as it did once and people’s commitment to your site is likely not as great. In short, a subscription no longer means that your readers are getting your posts every time but are, instead, touching base as they see your updates as part of their regular activities.
The Flip Side of the Coin
However, even though being subscribed to on Facebook or Twitter means that we have to compete with the rest of the clutter on those services, including those we create and is created by others, At least we can be reasonably certain that users will regularly access those accounts in the near future.
Many users, myself included, only visit their RSS reader once every week or less often. This is because of “second inbox syndrome” where RSS reading feels like another chore and, due to overuse, has also become a cluttered mess.
On the other hand, social networks and social news sites are tied to our subscriber’s online lives in a much tighter way, making it much more likely that they will at least open up those accounts and cultivate them well.
As if to highlight this, Feedburner, on my feeds that I track, find that my reach is usually only 10-20% of my subscriber base. Some of this is because I have a large FriendFeed readership, which counts toward my subscriber base but doesn’t appear to count toward my reach, but it highlights the fact that, even with pure RSS feeds, having subscribers is no guarantee of readership.
In fact, these alternative subscription methods have a perk that can greatly expand your reach outside of your direct subscriber base. After all, anyone who is subscribed to your site via Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn will find it very easy to share your work with their other contacts, helping you reach new people.
This “indirect readership” is perhaps the greatest part of these new subscription methods. Though Google Reader has integrated some social features into its service, it can’t compete with Facebook or Twitter on that front.
The Death of RSS
What is clear is to me is that RSS is becoming less and less important as a means of direct subscription. I already have more Twitter followers than RSS subscribers, almost twice as many, and when you factor in Facebook friends, those who “Like” my site, people who follow my FriendFeed and those who follow me on Linked In, I have probably three or four times as many “subscribers” off my feed as on it.
Though RSS will likely remain a crucial format for years to come, it will be more of a way to feed these other methods, not as a means of direct subscription.
Simply put, as competition between sites grows more intense and users want to follow all of the things they are interested in at one convenient place, it is going to be more important for bloggers and other webmasters to be where their readers are naturally and work with them.
This is the reason so many blogs, including this one and my personal blog, have de-emphasized RSS subscriptions in favor of including other methods, a trend that seems likely to continue.
However, this does beg one interesting question. With so many subscription options, which would you, as a blogger, prefer? Obviously any follow is better than none, but which would you rather have?
Personally, I find that email is the absolute best way for someone to subscribe to my site, it ensures almost every piece is read, and that Twitter, while great for social interaction, is likely the least effective in terms of followers to viewers ratio, but I am torn on which of the other means is best.
What are your experiences on this front?