Home Delivery

Frustrated by chasing down endless — and endlessly changing — information, some corporations are turning to RSS technology.
Yasmin GhahremaniJuly 1, 2006

In the pantheon of unwelcome messages delivered to finance chiefs, “We forgot to bill the client” is number five (right between “J.J. smeared pudding all over your Treo” and “Legal says you got a notice from some guy named Wells”). When Campus Televideo president and CFO Brian Benz found out that the company’s accounting department had failed to invoice a large university for a cable TV project, he cringed. Apparently, an internal-communications gap had left the accounts-receivable manager clueless about the six-figure contract. Says Benz: “It’s difficult to go to a customer and say, ‘We forgot to bill you for a couple of months. You owe us for three months of service.’”

Keen to avoid a replay of the billing snafu, Benz turned to a technology called Really Simple Syndication (RSS). Fitted to Campus Televideo’s software (by Spanning Partners LLC), the RSS system automatically sends E-mail notifications to pertinent Campus Televideo employees whenever a new or updated contract or purchase order is uploaded. “By making sure the process is 100 percent automated,” notes Benz, “I never have to think about whether the right people are informed.”

RSS is nothing new to new-media types. Bloggers have been using the filtering device for several years now, culling relevant news articles for their Websites. Some corporations have embraced RSS as well, adapting the technology to deliver podcasts to shareholders (see “Pod People” at the end of this article) and headline updates to custom portals like My Yahoo. Now, business managers like Benz are discovering that RSS can be tailored to push real-time information to employees and partners.

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Please Ping Me

The beauty of RSS is that it is based on the extensible markup language. With XML (essentially a code for describing data), information can be readily shared across different systems and platforms. Any information published in XML — including data found in many enterprise applications — can be delivered via RSS. In fact, some business-software vendors are beginning to add RSS features to their applications. In addition, homegrown programs with data-import and -export capabilities can be easily modified to send and accept the feeds.

Typically, relevant data is funneled straight to other applications or to aggregators (also known as readers). Many browser-based or desktop aggregators are free. For-sale readers are generally more robust, allowing users to create triggers for alerts. Often, the alerts are sent directly to E-mail programs or smart phones.

Server-based offerings, which allow for centralized control over feeds and access, are also available. These enterprise systems, from vendors like Newsgator Technologies and KnowNow, run $30 to $80 per user per month. Says Ray Valdes, research director, Internet platforms, at Gartner: “If it’s done right, the costs of adding RSS become basically invisible.”

All kinds of internal reports can be syndicated using a server-based RSS. For example, a business can feed accounting data to customers for streamlined billing. On the other side of the ledger, alerts can be created to ping a company’s CFO whenever a past-due notice enters the system. “The concept behind RSS,” says Ron Rasmussen, KnowNow’s chief technology officer, “is that it’s better for data or content to notify you of change than for you to have to go looking for it.”

Michael Pusateri, vice president of engineering for Disney ABC Television Group, deployed RSS feeds and Web logs three years ago. Pusateri says he wanted to make it easier for managers in his department to know what transpired during different shifts. The division maintained a virtual log, but it required users to visit each job function’s Web page, a laborious task.

Initially, Pusateri queried consultants about custom-building a new log program. When he received quotes of more than $100,000, he decided instead to add RSS functionality and Web logs to the existing software. The cost? Less than $1,000. Managers now receive all of the log updates in one Outlook folder. “It doesn’t have every feature,” concedes Pusateri, “but it’s good enough for the price we’re paying.” Apparently so: Pusateri says other parts of Disney are now looking into distributing divisionwide announcements via server-based RSS systems.

Beyond the Fringe

Law firm Dykema is also creating an in-house communications system using RSS. Web technologies manager Bill Gratsch says Dykema is building an intranet page for each of the firm’s cases. Lawyers will be able to see client-specific news feeds (along with real-time updates from internal-matter tracking software). “We have so many data silos,” says Gratsch, “we want to leverage all the databases by creating RSS feeds to multiple locations.”

Granted, RSS does have its limitations. Like HTML, the syndication system is a fairly lightweight protocol that lacks built-in security. Although safeguards applied to Web communications can be extended to RSS feeds, critical corporate information is best distributed in more secure ways.

Another problem: RSS is seen by some corporate managers as a fringe technology, akin to other Gen X favorites like podcasts and Instant Messaging. But as with podcasts and IM, such thinking is likely to change — and soon. Microsoft plans to include RSS features in the next releases of both Windows (Windows Vista) and Internet Explorer. Publishers of mainstream business applications are also expected to incorporate RSS capabilities into their enterprise applications, possibly by the end of next year. In time, personalized RSS-based feeds will probably be as familiar to business users as electronic mail. “Most people today don’t know what SMTP is, but it’s the protocol used to deliver E-mail,” notes Forrester Research principal analyst Charlene Li. “RSS will be like that.”

Yasmin Ghahremani writes about business and technology from New York.

Now in Syndication

  • 2% of Internet users subscribe to podcasts
  • 28% of Internet users are aware of podcasting
  • 12% of Internet users are aware of RSS
  • 27% of Internet users read RSS-filtered content on start pages without knowing that RSS is the enabling technology
  • 50% of RSS users are between the ages of 18 and 34*
  • 22% of RSS users are 50 years old or over*

*Of those who are aware that they are using the technology.

Sources: Yahoo, Ipsos Insight

Pod People

They may not know it, but some business managers have already embraced RSS technology. The podcast, a Gen X media that is increasingly being used to deliver corporate news to shareholders, is generally syndicated using the RSS protocol.

A podcast (essentially a digitized audio file put on a Website) can be downloaded to a computer or, more often, an MP3-capable audio player. Once the file is stored, subscribers are able to listen to the Webfeed at any time — a real plus. New content gets delivered automatically to a subscriber’s PC or handheld device via Really Simple Syndication technology. Microsoft, IBM, and General Motors are just a few of the publicly traded companies that regularly send out investor information via podcast.

Some businesses are exploring different ways to exploit the fledgling technology. Financial-services specialist Capital One, for instance, has distributed about 3,000 iPods to employees for training purposes. Management encourages workers to use the portable players to download training materials or even audio books. Vice president of finance Geoff Rubin, who teaches a short company course on corporate risk and capital adequacy, says students are required to download an audio book two weeks before his class. Rubin thinks listening to an eight-hour podcast is more manageable than reading a 200-page book. “We’ve had much higher class-participation rates than I would have expected if we’d assigned the written book,” he says.

Others are using podcasting to connect with customers. Appliance-maker Whirlpool has a weekly interview series called “American Family Podcast” that covers topics on parenting and family relationships. The aim, says Whirlpool’s management, is to build brand loyalty with relevant information, not new-product come-ons. “We won’t make it a vocalization of a sales sheet,” says Audrey Reed-Granger, director of public relations for Whirlpool-brand appliances. “Consumers know when they’re being sold to.”

Maybe so, but a whole lot of marketers see podcasts as an ideal way to reach younger customers. Scores of youth-oriented companies — Nike and Apple, among others — already use podcasts to send out new-product announcements.

It’s unclear if the Webfeeds are generating much revenue. In fact, eager marketers may want to temper their predictions about a podcast revolution. Despite brisk sales of personal audio players (more than 22 million Americans now own iPods or MP3 players), podcasting attracts a relatively tiny audience. How tiny? Forrester Research says less than one percent of North American online consumers listen to podcasts at least once a month.

That percentage will undoubtedly rise over time. For now, consultants say businesses should keep their podcasts simple — and cheap. “It’s hard to justify creating original content right now, because of the small audience size,” says Forrester Research principal analyst Charlene Li. “We advise starting with existing content — like earnings calls.” — Y.G.