17 minute read

Note to techies - this article is intended for the nonprofit crowd and as such is basically an introduction to RSS. There's a few interesting things at the end (RSS->animated gif via feedburner, Yahoo Pipes, and MIT/Google's Exhibit tool).

The Web 2.0 revolution has democratized huge swaths of online technology, making it easier for people who didn't grow up taking computers apart and programming games from themselves out of instructions from 3-2-1 Contact magazine article to contribute to online websites via easy-to-update blogs, wikis, and so on. These are all fantastic tools, mostly free and open. You can also read my overall guide to open source tools for non-profits to get situated in some terminology and theory.

There's one technology embedded in almost all of these systems that lets you track updates, news, events, even changes to a wiki page. These updates can pop up on your desktop, appear in most email clients (but not Outlook 2003, Outlook 2007 supports RSS however!), appear in your web browser, and even get embedded on your web page.

This is my favorite web magic, and it's called RSS - Real Simple Syndication. Anywhere you see this symbol, there's some RSS involved.

So in short, RSS is a tool that lets a website or blog send out updates -- new content, calendar items, blog updates, and so on -- in a standard format that makes it "really simple" to include in a webpage, subscribe to in email programs, with many web browsers such as Flock or FireFox, online tools like Google Reader, and more.

Keep reading to learn more about the why and how of RSS for nonprofits!

Beth Kanter, your first stop (yes, even before me!) for social media / web 2.0 for nonprofits and do-gooder information has a nice collection of links and videos explaining the power of RSS to combine website content updates in one place. The video on that page talks specifically about a social RSS "aggregation" tool, but web browsers like Flock, email readers like Thunderbird, other online tools (Google Reader) and many, many programs also support the general idea of collecting RSS feeds and letting you know what's new on your favorite websites. Here's a four-minute video about reading RSS Feeds using Google Reader from CommonCraft:

The same guy who brought you that video has also possibly the most comprehensive, non-technical article on what RSS is and how it can help you out.

I really can't explain it any better than Michael does in that article; so go read it to get started with understanding the amazing, simple power that RSS can provide. It covers everything you need to know about using RSS from a personal perspective to get news.

But why should my organization use RSS?

Well, presumably you have a website, and an audience. You might send out weekly or quarterly newsletters that swim through the maze of spam filters and stale email addresses to let that audience know about what's happening. But why not empower them to find out your updates, as they happen, in a manner easiest for them, with no worries about spam filtering? RSS makes it easy to promote your website to your audience, and - even better - through other websites and web 2.0 tools! If you're worried about this news being "given" away, remember that if someone's really dedicated to the cause, they could copy and paste your content into their website - but with RSS, it shows up, gets updated, and links back to your site, drawing traffic. Suddenly giving things away becomes a key strategy in getting more traffic and a larger audience!

I'd like to cover two key concepts for organizations - publishing your own RSS feed (and what you can do with that), and re-publishing other people's RSS feeds on your website or blog (and why you might want to do that)

Publishing RSS feeds

Most "Content Management Systems" (CMSes) come with built-in RSS capabilities of one form or another. If your organization uses a CMS, you might already be publishing RSS feeds, or could with a simple click in the configuration. If you don't use a CMS, I strongly recommend considering switching as funding and/or staff time allow -- like "public" web 2.0 tools, they democratize the posting of information to your own website by lowering the technical and skill barriers to editing. I personally like Drupal, thanks to its incredible flexibility. Joomla is another fine (and naturally, open source and free) system.

It's possible to hand-code RSS, but really it's more trouble than it's worth. If you have any sort of system that publishes your news updates and press releases, either get a programmer to build RSS capability into it, or switch to using some form of CMS or blogging tool to publish your updates that has it built in.

I mentioned "blogging tool" as a valid way to create RSS feeds. It's true - and you don't even have to change your current website much, or any, depending on the level of integration you want! If your website is a behemoth or your IT/Web guy is non-existent or already overworked, there are many easy and free ways to create your own blog and host it remotely or embed it into your site with a minimum of fuss. Blogspot (part of the vast Google Empire) is probably the easiest to set up (try using a work-specific google account), and with a bit of work you can import its pages into your site. If you do this, you may also have to add a chunk of code in your webpage (preferably in the header section, but it can also work anywhere inside the body for most browsers) that looks like this:

<link href="URL OF YOUR RSS FEED" rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml" title="NAME OF YOUR RSS FEED" />

This makes it easier for browsers to "find" your feed, helping people subscribe to it easier.

Finally, if none of these options are available to you, but you still want to create an RSS feed, read MasterNewMedia's toolset on creating feeds from plain websites.

Write Once, Post Everywhere! (i.e. - so now what?)

Now that you have an RSS "Feed" - what are some things you can do with it besides putting it on your website and hoping people subscribe? If you have a Facebook account, you can set it up so that your RSS items are imported as "Notes" automatically. If you use Twitter, TwitterFeed can post your stories into Twitter (but be sure to balance that out with some human entries as well, purely announcement-based twitters rarely are followed!). Many other websites and web 2.0 tools allow you to place your RSS feed on your profile (Ning sites encourage this, and it's also possible in servenet.org profiles)

Naturally, you should consider working with partners and see if they would consider re-publishing your feed on their site somehow (see how below!).

Beyond that, many users will simply prefer subscribing to an RSS feed individually rather than signing up for email updates (which might get spammed, or lost in spam filters), as it gives the user better control over when and how they read news -- it also lets them get updates as you post them, as opposed to quarterly newsletters or visiting your press page constantly. So for what's usually a free and automatic add-on to an existing site, it's a fantastic new channel for outreach and engagement.

Measurement and Evaluation

RSS Feeds are harder to track than normal website hits, depending on how you track website hits - Google Analytics doesn't reliably work with RSS because it depends on javascript, which is rarely supported in RSS readers/aggregators, and essentially never on other websites re-publishing your feed (how to do that yourself is next!).

There are two solutions to this problem - one is using whatever server-side tracking tools your web host hopefully provides to check for unique visitors to RSS ("hits" on the RSS feed will be huge, as some readers will check every 30 seconds, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week!). The other is to pipe your RSS through the website FeedBurner, which gives you detailed information about who's reading your RSS feeds and now integrates with Google Analytics.

Showing an RSS feed on your website

So, you've identified a stream of news that you like (perhaps YSA's ServiceWire news?) and want to integrate that feed on your own website. Again, some CMS systems (particularly Drupal) make this easy. If it's not built-in, you can use a little bit of back-end code (a task for your webmaster) to automatically download RSS feeds and make a web page (or part of a page) out of them -- RSS2HTML is a quick and easy PHP script to do this which works on most web servers.

There's also a lot of great interactive "widgets" from Google (If you're using Google Sites), WidgetBox and others that are really easy to provide an RSS link and get a chunk of HTML code that you can insert on your website - a bit of googling around can find one that perfectly suits your needs, but here are two general-purpose javascript-based widgets from WidgetBox, which will work on almost any website. First is a simple reader and a headline scroller.

Feedburner will turn any RSS feed into an animated GIF so you can include it anywhere you can place an image (or can't use javascript or complex HTML) -- even your email signature!

Even more tips and tricks

Still reading? you get a bonus - some super advanced tips! You can do some fancy footwork with RSS using Yahoo Pipes, like filtering, combining, extracting certain data and so on to turn one or many feeds into one custom feed, or a data format called JSON (Javascript Object Notation). You can also extract JSON from Google Spreadsheets, giving you a handy and only slightly geeky way to do easy data visualization using The SIMILE Project, which is a powerful way to do some advanced sorting and mapping without mucking around with too much code (it all works with HTML and javascript, no back-end support necessary!).

The nice guys over at Forum One are presenting on RSS in early September in a seminar called "Web Sites Without Walls: Influential Strategies for Site Syndication." If you still hunger for more RSS goodness.