Oct 20, 2007

How RSS Feeds Changed My Life--for the Better?

by Matthew Latterell — last modified Oct 20, 2007 12:00 AM
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So much information, so little time. At least it seemed that way, before I fell in love with RSS. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is a method that allows information on the web to be collected--by a keyword, a tag, a type of content, a content author, etc.--and then made available to anyone who wants it. Some content is collected by the publisher. Want to get the latest Science and Technology headlines from Google News? Go to, click on the Sci/Tech link and then click the RSS link. Not specific enough? Create your own feed based on a Google News search. Instead of just "Science and Technology" maybe I want to see articles on "Green Technology" so I can search on that and click on the RSS link to access that feed.

Wait--a what? A feed?

Sorry. Let me back up. RSS has been around for a while, but the every day use of it by common folk (that would be most anyone who isn't a proudly self-identified "geek") has languished due to a lack of easy software to collect and read RSS feeds. What is the point of creating or promoting RSS feeds if no one out there is listening?

But with the ability to subscribe to feeds through Internet Explorer 7.0, the Firefox web browser, Microsoft Outlook 2007, Mozilla's Thunderbird email software and a host of web-based and free RSS reader applications like Google ReaderRssReader, FeedReader and more, investing in RSS finally makes sense.

How can/should nonprofit organizations use RSS? RSS, essentially, is a way for you to allow members, constituents, peers--anyone really--to get timely information from your organization delivered to them quickly and easily. A 2006 article by Phil Shapiro, explains:

"As an example, RSS feeds can be used by a nonprofit organization to distribute different kinds of information to different people. One RSS feed could be the organization's calendar of events or classes. Another could be a call for volunteers. A third feed might be information for funders. The more feeds an organization offers, the more narrowly tailored the information delivered to people served by that organization or supporting that organization."

How do you go about creating an RSS feed? Well, there are at least three answers to that and it mostly depends, for lack of a better term, on software. 

First, if your website is using one of many "content management systems" to manage site information, RSS is very likely already available. This means that you can create RSS feeds for things like calendar items, news and press releases, articles on a certain topic and more. Plone, the content management system we use, for example, offers an RSS feed on the built-in News and Events pages, as well as any "Smart Folder" (basically a page built to display certain site content based on keywords or other criteria). Additionally, any search that a visitor makes on the site is also instantly available as an RSS feed. In this way RSS can be used by both the content publisher to promote certain content (your latest news) as well as by the content reader to make it easy to track new content from your site specific to his or her interests.

The second way to create RSS feeds is to start using software that supports RSS. Basically, start using third party tools that offer feeds. Blogging tools, video sharing services, photo sharing services, news services and others almost all offer RSS feeds. Upload your videos to YouTube (or one of several other video sharing services) and create a custom RSS feed of them and promote that on your site. Use Flickr to do the same with your photos. Use Google News or Yahoo News to create a search about your organization or issues that interest you and your constituents and publish that feed to your website. And by publish to your website, I mean you can literally display that content on your website using other third party tools/services (widgets, they are called these days), as well as sharing the link to the feed so your constituents can have that content essentially "beamed" to them on regular intervals--the same way that email is delivered to their inbox.

The third way to create RSS feeds from your website is to use a third party service that creates RSS feeds to do the work for you. These services often charge for this, but if you don't want to figure out how to write the code to generate RSS feeds or you don't want to use other tools that already offer RSS feeds, then a third party service might be the way to go, like FeedYes, PonyFish and others. More information on this approach, as well as software that can be used to build feeds for use on your website, can be found in the recent TechSoup article, "Easy Ways to Publish Your Own RSS Feeds."

The upside of creating RSS feeds (of your own content or content of interest to your constituents) is you instantly have a new fantastic way to "push" content to your constituents, including both the content you want them to get as well as content they are specifically interested in receiving.

This is why I ultimately fell in love with RSS. Because there really is just so much information out there. And despite the fact that I said I'd visit those websites on a regular basis, I don't. And email lists, even if they are grouped around a topic, don't hold my interest with every post.

With RSS, though, I can select exactly what information I want to get. So if I want to know what my peers are thinking about and learning, I can subscribe to their blog feeds. If I want to keep up on the latest environmental news on a specific topic, I can find a feed dedicated to that or I can make my own. I have, essentially, filtered the abundance of information on the web into my own personal information delivery service.

My fear, initially, was that by filtering this way I'd miss things, I'd shut off areas of information. Instead, the opposite has happened. Feeds I've subscribed to have led me to subscribe to other feeds--sometimes similar, sometimes not. Feeds from organizations I care about have gotten me more involved in their issues and their work, not less. And I am much more knowledgeable on things I care about and can act on those issues more quickly because of how fast and easy it is to get to the information.

I think that is the take-away message here for nonprofits as well. Sure, your nonprofit can (and should) be using RSS to keep up on issues and organizations by subscribing to feeds using your browser, email software or RSS reader, making you more effective in your work. More than that, though, RSS has huge potential to instantly share information with your constituents just by publishing it to your website, whether they visit your site or not. It also allows folks to tailor information from you to suit their interests, and that is fantastic. And it allows you to pull information from other sites and services (the latest YouTube videos on your issues, the latest news on your issues from the 4500 news feeds tracked by Google News) onto your website, making your site that much more relevant. The problem with the Web is that there is just so much of it, and every nonprofit is competing for keystrokes and eyeballs against all that other content.

So much information, so little time. Make the most of it--start using RSS.


In addition to the links provided above, here are a few other resources to get you going:

Easy Ways to Publish Your Own RSS Feeds



Why Nonprofit Managers Must Use RSS — And How to Start



Make your nonprofit more effective with RSS aggregation



How to Create RSS Feeds for Your Organization