Making sense of the wikiverse: feed branding hits the big time

FusionBrand: Is Feed Branding The Next Wave?

In the fall of 2004, GM used a podcast to help introduce its 2005 vehicle line-up. Microsoft soon followed suit, and now dozens of companies are using podcasts as part of their branding mix.

Such podcasts represent the first wave of an emerging trend called feed branding, which also includes RSS feeds, ring tones and digital radio. Podcasts are "radio" programs or other broadcasts uploaded to Apple's iPod and other MP3 players. Subscription-based RSS feeds relay updated content from news sites or blogs. About 10-15% of such feeds now carry advertising, but that percentage will increase rapidly. Ringtones are customizable sounds on mobile phones. And digital radio uses satellites to transmit content-specific ads or even images to accompany DJs or songs.

Podcasting is the proverbial Next Big Thing, thanks to the 12 million iPods Apple has sold. Podcasts can be easily created with the GarageBand software that comes with every Mac, which means that they are often as niche as a blog. But more sophisticated companies are developing broadcast-quality programs on specialized topics, while others are sponsoring programs with wide appeal, much like the soap opera sponsorships during radio's heyday and the earliest days of TV. A few even have advertising, comparable to 30-second radio commercials, usually at the beginning and end of the podcast.

Currently, almost all podcasts are free, although Steve Jobs has broadly hinted at requiring payment, either through subscriptions or advertising revenues, once adoption spreads. However, that will probably face the same stonewalls that popular bloggers have faced trying to monetize their content.

Unlike Internet advertising, which requires consumers to be tethered to a PC, podcasts have the advantage of being time-shifted as easily as a TiVo. Consumers can listen to podcasts at their convenience, which reduces distractions and increases receptivity. One disadvantage, however, is a lack of measurement. Because the podcasts are listened to away from the computer, real-time tracking is impossible. As a result, some podcast advertisers are testing the use of 800-numbers or other direct response vehicles.

Podcasts have other branding applications as well. Since audiences can be away from a TV, PC or other equipment, podcasts will be utilized more frequently - and be more effective -- than videocassettes and their descendents. Business applications include supplying sales forces and prospects with product, usage or other information, establishing corporate communication networks for dispersed locations, facilitating knowledge capture, allowing meetings to be recorded and shared, and even providing guidance for new employees. These applications are also much cheaper and require less skill than other information-sharing techniques such as, say, Flash demos.

RSS feeds, available through numerous aggregators or advanced browsers like Firefox, eliminate the need to cruise favorite Web sites or blogs for updated information. Summaries or even actual clippings are automatically delivered to inboxes.

Small firms who have experimented with RSS advertising have reported results that are 20-30% greater than with email ads, with CTRs hitting an impressive 10%. It's easy to understand why, beyond the novelty factor. RSS is 100% opt-in, has a 100% delivery rate, and boasts a 100% open rate (when delivered to two-pane aggregators). RSS advertising got a big boost when Google unveiled it as part of its contextual Adsense program.

Despite the howls of purists, podcast and RSS advertising is inevitable, if for no other reason than to pay for the bandwidth-intensive technologies. But there has been debate over the shape of RSS ads. Beginning of feed? End of feed? Optimum length? A major fear is that medium gets subsumed by the advertising, just as online advertising got infected by pop-ups and emails got submerged by spam.

Ring/ringback tones, also known as audio or sonic branding, can also be considered part of feed branding. The Crazy Frogs ringtones have already swept the UK, and are a fast-emerging fad in the US, providing a meteroric boost to Jamster's subscription-based services. In Japan, subscribers have paid for the "Rockmelon" ringtone, which promises to increase the listener's bust size. Expect other firms to jump on this downloadable bandwagon. Yankee Group estimates that ringtone sales will hit $1 billion in US by 2008, while Ovum predicts $6.5 billion in worldwide sales by 2008. Despite such standouts as Intel's bum-bum and Nike's swoosh sound, audio is often overlooked in branding. But anyone who doubts its effectiveness should just ask Tony the Tiger or Twilight Zone's Rod Serling about the power of an iconic sound.

Ringback tones, where callers hear custom audio tracks instead of ringing, are not available everywhere, but will soon be ubiquitous. Ringback tones can play corporate messages, promote new products or announce promotions. Such tones are customizable by number dialed, meaning that each department can play separate messages or sounds.

Finally, digital radio is also threatening to re-write some branding rules. In addition to offering cable-like access to hundreds of channels, digital radio lets listeners pause, rewind and time-record high-quality broadcasts. Additionally, relevant information such as artist and album information can be transmitted.

This means a dramatic change in portable entertainment. Digital radios will be able to transmit scrolling news, traffic reports or ads to the radio's screen. As screens get larger, traffic maps can accompany traffic reports, or logos or other visuals can be displayed on the screen during ads. Channels, sub-channels and even sub-sub-channels will allow advertisers to target segments more precisely. Some are even talking about coordinating digital radio with the GPS system to deliver ads specific to the listener's location.

In 1994, AT&T put up the first paid Web ad, sparking a new era in branding. Now feed branding puts us on the verge of another era that will allow us to communicate with customers and prospects in ways never before possible.