Sunday, June 22, 2008

Nielsen on RSS, Feeds and Users-- this will surprise many

Jakob Nielsen provides a lot of very insightful information about designing for the web. Here are a few results from his recent work looking at email newsletters and news feeds. One of the big areas of buzz among the net savvy are the use of "feeds" and aggregators of content. So what has Nielsen been finding among typical users-- maybe not what you think.

Do people know what RSS means?

"In our most recent study, 82% of users had no idea what this term referred to. In general, it’s typically wrong to use implementation-oriented terminology, because most users don’t understand the underlying technology and don’t care about it. It’s better to use terms that indicate what the concept does for users, and “news feeds” does this far better than “RSS.”

Some users were familiar with the general idea of feeds, even if they didn’t know the term “RSS.” This was typically because they were receiving feeds on their My Yahoo! page or a similar personalized portal."

Do users like news feeds?

"Users had very mixed feelings about feeds. Some people liked viewing information from multiple sites in a single centralized location instead of having to go to each site. Some users also liked scanning a list of headlines without seeing any content that they didn’t ask for. A final benefit some users appreciated was the ability to determine when they would go and view their news items. This is in contrast with newsletter arrival times, which users can’t control.

On the other hand, many users had negative feelings about feeds. People who are already suffering from information overload resent having to go to yet another source of information. In contrast, email newsletters arrive in a tool that people already use, so they don’t add yet another thing for over-burdened users to do. Email is also easier to archive for later use, whereas feeds have an ephemeral nature."

How do users read news feeds?

"Also, our eyetracking of users reading news feeds showed that people scan headlines and blurbs in feeds even more ruthlessly than they scan newsletters. When you appear in somebody’s news reader, your site has a diminutive footprint that’s rubbing shoulders with a flood of headlines from many other sites. Under these conditions, users often read only the first two words of a headline, so it’s crucial to have brief headlines and to start them with the most information-carrying words."

So how do news feeds compare to email newsletters?

"News feeds are definitely not for everybody, and they’re not a replacement for email newsletters. Feeds can supplement newsletters for sites that cater to users who prefer a centralized view of headlines. These are primarily newspaper sites and other sites with a heavy focus on news and breaking stories, as well as sites that target Internet enthusiasts. For sites that target mainstream business users or a broad consumer audience, news feeds may be less important. Such sites might be better off emphasizing higher-quality newsletters and a choice of publication frequency.

Feeds are a cold medium in comparison with email newsletters. Feeds don’t form the same relationship between company and customers that a good newsletter can build. We don’t have data to calculate the relative business value of a newsletter subscriber compared to a feeds subscriber, but we wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that companies make ten times as much money from each newsletter subscriber. Given that newsletters are a warmer and much more powerful medium, it is probably best for most companies to encourage newsletter subscriptions and promote them over feeds on their website."

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