The Dynamics of the Subscriber Impulse: When Do People Decide To Grab Your RSS Feed?

By Daniel Scocco

This is a question that has been on my mind for some time already. When I started getting a good response from readers on my first blogs, I thought to myself: “Cool, they like the content. Now it is just a matter of getting mentioned on a blog with thousands of subscribers and these people will want to grab my RSS feed as well.”

Interestingly enough, even a couple of years of blogging experience didn’t manage to dispel completely this belief I had. When I launched DailyBits, I thought that if I was able to get a guest post featured on a big tech blog I would automatically gain thousands of new RSS subscribers.

It is a numbers game, after all. Imagine you score a guest article on a blog with 150,000 RSS subscribers. The article features a prominent link to your blog right on top of it. One would think that at least 10% of these readers would be interested in checking where that guest article is coming from. So we have 15,000 readers checking your blog. If your content is good and has value to that audience, similarly, one would assume that at least 10% of those visitors would grab your RSS feed. So at the end of the day you would have some 1,500 new RSS subscribers.

Sounds about right in theory, eh? Unfortunately this model does not hold true in practice.

The Question

I did manage to get a guest article featured on ReadWriteWeb, which has 180,00 RSS readers, and that resulted in 150 new RSS subscribers for my blog.

The question then becomes: why the conversion numbers are so small, and when exactly does a visitor decides to grab your RSS feed?

People have already discussed widely the question of why visitors subscribe to a blog. Maki from Doshdosh summarizes it this way:

Readers subscribe to blogs when they provide an informational or entertainment value so great that it would be a loss to not subscribe to it.

A guest post on Problogger also covered this topic, mentioning that people subscribe to blogs because they want to absorb the knowledge of the author, for several purposes.

So more or less it is clear why people subscribe to a blog. The question I want to answer, on the other hand, is when they do subscribe.

One simple answer would be: visitors will subscribe to a blog when they are 90% convinced that it would be a loss indeed to miss that content. I say 90% and not 100% because they can always unsubscribe later, and for 10% people would be willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.

The problem is getting the visitor confidence level up to that 90%. Probably a single mention on a big popular blog is not enough, and that is why the conversion numbers that I mentioned before are so low.

Different visitors, different results

Additionally each visitor and person will behave differently. When my article was featured on ReadWriteWeb 150 of that audience decided to subscribe to my blog right after seeing it for the first time. That means that a single mention on a blog that they read and trust was enough to get their confidence level to 90%, and as a result they subscribed. For the vast majority of the readers, though, that mention was not enough. Perhaps for some people it added 10% to their confidence level, for other it might have been 50%.

Should I manage to post another guest article on ReadWriteWeb a couple of weeks after the initial one, it is likely that all the readers that were 50% convinced about subscribed to my blog would now finally take the decision and grab my RSS feed. For the ones who were only 10% convinced after the initial post, on the other hand, it would’ve been necessary to get 9 guest posts published before they would achieve their tipping point and decide d to subscribe.

Obviously this example is very simplified and linear. The Internet is a web of connections, and the same readers that saw my guest article on ReadWriteWeb could have seen my blog somewhere else, on a social bookmarking site for instance.

Regardless of where and how they become exposed to your website and content, however, I believe that certain reactions will need to get triggered on the visitor’s mind before he arrives to the conclusion that he actually should click on that small RSS icon.

Factors that can help

Here are some factors that can influence how fast the confidence of the visitor in subscribing to your blog will build up:

1. Quality of the content. The higher the quality of your content, the easier to get the visitor confident about becoming a subscriber. A couple of brilliant and value-packed posts in a row will make a big impact on most people. Take a look at Zen Habits and you will know what I am talking about.

2. Direct recommendation. One thing is to get a link in the middle a huge resources list. Another is to get the owner of a blog personally recommending your content and your site. The latter will make the visitor much more confident.

3. Social proof. People will inevitably get influenced by the number of subscribers that you already have and by the number of people that leave comments and interact with your blog.

Competition

Another point that we need to take into considering is the existence of hundreds of blogs and websites on the same niche of yours. Like it or not we need in a society characterized by short attention spans.

I am sure that someone interested in technology would love to spend hours every day reading all the tech related blogs on the Internet. The problem is that most of us do not have time for that, so we make decisions about where to get information from, usually considering the sources that will pack the most value for our time.

Instead of subscribing to hundreds of tech blogs, therefore, a person might decide just to subscribe to TechCrunch, GigaOM and ArsTechnica.

Even if you have a really cool tech blog, therefore, it will be very hard get the confidence level of that person in subscribing to your blog up to 90%. Basically you would need to prove that by spending time with your content he would gain more value than by reading the sources that he already does. Quite a difficult task.

Conclusion

Overall you will need to get a visitor exposed to your website several times and on different circumstances to get him 90% confident that he should subscribe to your RSS feed (or bookmark the site). Moreover, depending on your niche and approach, it is possible that you will never be able to get some visitors convinced about subscribing to your blog.

What do you think about this theory?

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35 Responses to “The Dynamics of the Subscriber Impulse: When Do People Decide To Grab Your RSS Feed?”

  • Ross Hill

    My comments on stickiness on Problogger were featured at http://www.poliblogs.co.uk/blog/2008/02/17-tips-to-keep-visitors-on-your-blog

    I think you really hit on something with competition. If you have a site like DailyBlogTips but I already subscribe to Problogger then it is a pretty close call – but you just snuck in because you have consistently good content. For blog tips then maybe RWW web2.0 startup loving visitors would be relevant, but there are plenty of other ‘niches’ that you can target to where you are relevant and it would be interesting to see how each one converts to see if you can pick up some trends.

    You said Zen Habits made it from a few good posts. I think his subscriber conversion rate would have been highest when all of those posts were on the same page. When I find a good new blog I’ll read the full homepage and then click through a few pages of archives to make sure that it is consistently good, and if it is, then I’ll subscribe. For me you need to have ongoing consistency and not just a one hit wonder post.

  • Rajeev Edmonds

    1) Great Content and/or reference from credible source = subscriber
    2) Killer landing page and/or best posts in sidebar = subscriber
    3) Impressive feed count and/or plenty of comments = subscriber

    and last but not the least…

    Subscribe button in every corner of page = subscriber ( Hehehe )

  • Peg

    I just started writing a blog on personal history. I don’t think most of my readers would know what RSS feed is, so they wouldn’t use it. If someone did subscribe it would most likely be through email.

    I think an article for beginners on what RSS feed is, how to use it, and what benefits it provides would be very helpful.

  • Matt

    Looks like you’re applying your theory right away at the bottom of your post 🙂

    “Don’t want to miss a single tip? Subscribe to our RSS Feed!”

    I subscribe to stuff that I feel is a leader in a certain niche.

    Another important question is what is the penetration of RSS? And how are people using RSS?

    I think the research shows that the penetration is really low. It’s still important because RSS users are generally bloggers and tastemakers, but it might help to explain why your estimates were low.

  • Sue @ TameBay

    Like Peg, I think it very much depends on your niche. Ours is eBay sellers, and 18 months ago when we started the blog, many of our readers didn’t even really know what a blog was, or that you could comment on it.

    I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve explained to what RSS is and why you would want to use it. But if you only read two blogs and one news site each day, if you’re just not that involved in the blogosphere, RSS doesn’t really help you all that much!

  • Daniel

    I don’t think the point is whether readers know what RSS is or not.

    I used RSS as an example cause this is the most popular technology to keep updated with blogs. But the theory could involve simply bookmarking a site or memorizing it to visit it in the future regularly.

    My question is: when does a random visitor becomes a regular one?

  • Lori

    I just did a guest post for ianfernando.com and noticed my subscribers went up by 15. I don’t know if that has anything to do with or not but that’s just what I figured happened.

    I always give a blog a chance and subscribe. They have 2 weeks to show me their stuff. If I don’t see anything interesting, I UNsubscribe. I apply this to ALL niches.

  • OldSailor

    A visitor prefers to subscribe to RSS, in addition to quality, regular and real time updated contents.

  • team ray

    idk man i dont really see point of subscribing via rss

    when you can just bookmark site in your favorites folder

  • Tom Beaton

    I think most people take a certain amount of exposure to a blog before they subscribe. Personally, I subscribe to many blogs and try them out for a while, maybe four weeks, then decide if I want to carry on reading or whether I am not that interested.

  • Bilingual Blogger

    And don’t underestimate the number of people who won’t subscribe to your feed, won’t bookmark your site, won’t leave comments and yet they check your blog daily or weekly to read what you’re writing about.

    While it’s surprising your guest post at ReadWriteWeb didn’t generate more subscribers, don’t take it personally. I think so many people today are overloaded and pressed for time that subscribing to another blog represents another daily obligation. I think for someone to subscribe to a blog on the very first visit, they will have to be really blown away by the content. And “blown away” could be defined the way you and others have put it…that a person subscribes so as not to miss out on anything that blogger may have to say. So, while someone may enjoy a blog, they may not view it as a must-read, therefore, no motivation to subscribe.

    I agree with your theory. But I think the most important factor is that most people will require multiple reminders and visits and an extended exposure to a blog (via guest posts, comments left on other blogs and forums, etc.) before taking the plunge and deciding to subscribe.

  • Craig

    When you said that it was a “numbers game”, you were right. But then you went off into the weeds.

    You wrote an article on ReadWriteWeb with 180,000 RSS subscribers…

    How many RSS subscribers actually read the article?

    Of those who did read the article on ReadWriteWeb, how many actually went to your website to see what you were about?

    Of those who did check out your website, how many subscribed to your RSS feed?

    There’s a rule of thumb that says a 10% response rate is pretty good. Applying this rule, you would get 180,000 ReadWriteWeb RSS Subscribers = 18,000 article readers = 1,800 checking out your website = 180 signing up for your RSS Feed.

    So, if you got 150 RSS subscribers on your feed, you were pretty close to the general rule of thumb.

    As an exercise for the advanced student, validate the numbers for each of those steps in response. I’ll bet you’ll see about a 10% response rate.

  • Virtual Impax

    RSS is still in the “early adoption” phase.

    Also, IMHO it’s a lot easier to get RSS subscribers than email newsletter subscribers.

    Like you said, it’s easy to unsubscribe from an RSS feed and you can rest assured you won’t be hearing from the site again.

    I recently unsubscribed from an email list and the list owner emailed me demanding to know why! ACK!

  • UltraRob

    It’s pretty rare that I subscribe the first time I read a blog. Generally I’ll end of following a few links to different posts and then recognize the name. I figure if I’ve ended up there a few times I probably want to be reading all the time. Occasionally I’ll end up somewhere and see lots of cool stuff the first time and subscribe.

  • Sue @ TameBay

    Re. #6, then why is the title of the post “When Do People Decide To Grab Your RSS Feed?”.

    If you wanted to ask about when people bookmarked you, that’s a whole different question, isn’t it.

  • Daniel

    Craig, you are estimating that out of the 180,000 RSS subscribes only 10% will read any given post?

    I think that number is way off. People that subscribed to a rss feed demonstrated a strong interested to follow that content, else they would not have bothered to subscribe, they would just visit it once in a while.

  • Daniel

    Sue, I am not sure how different these 2 dynamics are.

    The technology behind them is different, but the process is pretty much the same (a couple of clicks) and the purpose too. Ain’t it?

  • Craig

    Daniel,

    You can verify the accuracy of the 10% rule of thumb by looking at the web stats for that page for the period it showed up in the RSS feed.

    Now, that might be a little difficult since it’s for the ReadWriteWeb site. Maybe you could ask him to dig up the stats for you.

    Or you could look at how many referrals your website got from the link on ReadWriteWeb. How many is that? I’ll bet that it’s somewhere around 1500-1800.

    Go check it, I’m waiting…. 🙂

  • Bent

    I only subscribe to blog if I find that blog is worth to read..like your blog (obviously).

  • Daniel

    Craig, yeah close to 1500.

    Keep in ming though that the click-through rate on those embeded links on posts, especially guest author links, should be around 1%.

    So if 1500 clicked, in order to get a CTR of 1% at least 150,000 saw it.

    And you can ask to any webmaster about that average CTR, it is always close to that 1%, a bit higher a bit lower depending on the situation.

  • felix

    Really nice post! I think authority of the referrer is definitely a key ingredient. But I’ve got about 5 months of Google Analytics goal tracking that I’ve looked through (granted it isn’t a ton of data, but still) and it seems that a lot of people make the subscribe decision immediately after reading the first post they come to on my site. Do you see this behaviour as well?

    (I posted my findings on my blog http://comments.deasil.com/2008/02/28/rss-subscriber-habits/ )

  • Craig

    I’m not sure that a click-through rate of 1% for highlighted links in content or byline is a good rule-of-thumb. But then I haven’t looked at that specific situation.

    Do you have any stats to back that up? I’ll stick to my 10% response rate rule-of-thumb until you can show me otherwise. 🙂

  • Daniel

    10% CTR is crazy high for a “byline” link.

    Anyone who did a guest post on a big blog will confirm you that.

  • Craig

    Then what is the right CTR? And show the stats to prove it. I’ll make a bet that in the situation you cited, it’s closer to 10% than to 1%.

    You might be right, because that would imply that the CTR from their RSS feed to read the story is higher than 10%, which better matches our expectations.

    But that’s why we need to see the stats to validate our expectations.

  • Daniel

    I don’t track outgoing clicks on my feed. I would need to ask to someone who do.

  • SEO Genius

    Excellent post something i have often considered.

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