The writing is on the wall for the one-way e-marketing message

Marketing is already going through a major transformation thanks to the Net, but a new development is likely to revolutionise consumer Web habits and put an end to the one-way communication so many marketers rely on, says Mark Taylor

Speaking at the Internet Advertising Bureau’s Engage Conference two weeks ago, Bill Gates declared: “The future of advertising is the internet.” And he is right. In many senses, technology is no longer at the service of marketing; it increasingly defines it.

And his three central observations around technology-driven changes – consumer empowerment, personalisation and interactivity – have recast marketing. Yet these were elements of any relationship marketing company’s DNA well before the arrival of the Net. Individually, these changes are not new, what is new is the convergence of change and the acknowledgement that traditional marketing needs an overhaul – the targets of such marketing are voting with their feet.

The changes in technologies and media such as blogs, RSS feeds (more of this later) and podcasts have given consumers more control over the messaging and content they receive, and as marketers we have to work more creatively to reach them. The most searching impact of the internet for marketers, however, is in the real-time dialogues that the medium offers.

Permission-based dialogues go far beyond the one-way communications many marketers have adopted and continue to practise – even on the Web. By definition, dialogue involves listening. Smart marketers are doing so, and the internet and the related, evolving marketing technologies are providing more channels through which to do so.

Using these new tools, we are better able to tune into behavioural differences, into how prospects react to the online marketing and to accompany our prospective customers further along the sales funnel. This is why it is more appropriate to use the term online marketing than online advertising – the online marketer uses the tools at his or her disposition to change consumer behaviour, not simply attitudes.

Gates noted that media and internet content will become personalised, allowing us to view what we want, when we want. Actually, that’s already happening – on television with personal video recorders (PVRs), and on the internet, with a technology that is rapidly becoming mainstream. It goes under the – for once – aptly descriptive name of really simple syndication (RSS) and, just as TiVo allows you to watch what you want when you want, so RSS allows you to choose the Web content you want to see – and updates it automatically.

Moreover, just as PVRs have revolutionised television viewing, RSS is set to transform the way we use the Net. Unlike TiVo, though, it also represents transformational opportunities for marketers who use it wisely. Marketers need to understand that consumers who wish for a relationship with a company or site will in-creasingly subscribe to RSS instead of e-mail.

But first we need to understand what RSS is and does. Fundamentally, it’s a standard for publishing regular updates to Web-based content. Using this standard, online publishers provide updates, such as the latest news headlines or blogs. Whenever you see the RSS icon on a website, it means you have found content that can be syndicated or published.

Meanwhile, consumers use RSS reader applications called aggregators or, less impenetrably, news “readers” to collect and monitor their favourite feeds in one place. For consumers, RSS makes it possible to review a large number of sites in a very short time. For publishers, RSS allows instant distribution of content updates to consumers.

RSS has tremendous potential from a marketing perspective. According to Forrester’s Marketer Online Survey (in February), 57 per cent of marketers are interested in using RSS as a marketing channel – even though penetration to date has reached barely two per cent of North American online adults.

The combination of reduced e-mail marketing effectiveness and a growing consumer advertising backlash will convince marketers to test RSS.

Given that RSS feeds are becoming easier to subscribe to, and that more online services are becoming RSS enabled, this trend will inevitably force us to understand and leverage the potential of RSS as a tool in customer relationship management. RSS has profound implications for several marketing-related industries and specifically for relationship marketing agencies. The weak link in RSS as a marketing tool is, undoubtedly, measurement. As Forrester says, measuring RSS-based marketing efforts is like Web measurement in 1994 â there’s limited technology in place and the standards don’t exist today. They will soon and there are already a range of techniques – from the very basic that all marketers should use, to metrics that enable marketers who are RSS experts (yes, there are some) to analyse the overall impact of RSS marketing.

RSS will get even simpler: browser makers are already working on a one-click button that will add RSS content to their applications, and marketers who ignore this increasingly important element of consumer choice are forfeiting a powerful opportunity to reach their consumers.

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