Does This RSS Make Me Look [Like I Missed Something]?

raw RSS feed data
mind numbing view of your RSS feed.
Last week, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of WordPress enthusiasts (if you’re in Chattanooga and you like WordPress, join us next time, won’t you?) about RSS. If you don’t know already what RSS, I encourage you to read up on it, but the short definition is that “RSS is a format for delivering regularly changing web content.” (source) This content is delivered to subscribers in the form of a feed, which is basically your website’s dated content, or posts, in a raw data stream, which is not a pretty sight–trust me on this one.

So, if you’re a reader, it means you have access to content from all over the interwebs in the form of front door delivery. You don’t need to visit each and every one of your favorite sites every day–you can subscribe to their feeds, and when content is added, it will be delivered straight to you, however you choose to receive it: email, a feed reader like feedly, or a podcast on iTunes (yes, that’s just a fancy pants RSS feed). Feedly is my personal favorite, but emails can be pretty handy, too.

What does it mean for you as a writer or content creator?

RSS for Content Creators

Well, one thing it means is that you are in syndication, just like your favorite sitcom, whether you know it or not. If you are running a WordPress site, you are publishing an RSS feed (actually quite a few–every category and tag also has an RSS feed, and if you have custom post types registered, they may also have their own feeds).

Additionally, it means this: your visitors may not ever be actually visiting your site.

That’s right, the site that you’ve spent hours putting together. The fonts and colors over which you have agonized? Possibly irrelevant. The fancy animations, and opt in boxes, and amazing content in the sidebar or footer widgets or header–they may not see any of those. Quite possibly, they may not even see the images you feature so proudly with your posts.

(Almost) everything they know about your site, they know from your feed.

It may be the “backside” of your site, but when you’re trying on new jeans in the store, I know you check your backside in the fancy mirrors there. Just like you check how those jeans sit on your backside, you’d better be checking your site’s backside, too.

That means, even if you don’t use Feedly, or Flipboard, check your site (feed) in at least one of those.

What about (RSS) Emails?

Are you offering visitors the chance to receive your blog posts by email? If not, you should be. If you’re in this category, here are some options for you to look into. You can send emails using any one of several services, including, but not necessarily limited to:

  • Jetpack (yes, the plugin)
  • Feedburner (yes, the service now owned by Google)
  • MailChimp (yes, the email marketing company with the chimp)

If you are using or considering these services, here’s a brief rundown:

Jetpack: if you are already using Jetpack, this is a super easy option. I don’t love it because I don’t love how it looks. The Jetpack emails I get have the WordPress logo at the top, and the author’s photo along with the post title. There’s not a lot of control over the look of it, as far as I know.

Feedburner: this is a bit harder to set up, but not too bad. You can add a logo image, which has to be hosted elsewhere (possibly on your site), up to 200 pixels square, which is not too large. You can tweak the fonts and colors to a small degree.

MailChimp: if you’ve been here before, you know this one is my favorite. I don’t get any kickbacks for saying that, but they are just my favorite. MailChimp is the hardest to set up, but worth it because:

  1. You can brand your email much more closely to your site, like with a full width image to use as a header.
  2. You can tweak headings, fonts, and colors (fonts are still very limited, because email fonts are limited to whatever is common to most computers, whereas we have a lot more options now on our sites).
  3. You can add extra sections to your email, like persistent links to your social media accounts, or a promotional blurb for your latest ebook.
  4. Once you have an email list set up in MailChimp, if you have your subscribers’ permission (super duper important), and want to email them something which is not a blog post, you can do that, too. With Jetpack and Feedburner, your emails come only from your posts.

Once your RSS feed campaign is set up on one of these services, you can’t just assume your work is done. It’s important to subscribe to your own feed, for instance, and make sure that your emails always look the way you expect them to.

Don’t Forget About Images

You knew I was going to say that. This is an area where I consistently see issues with RSS feeds. I’m just a little bit obsessed with images.

A trend I’ve noticed lately, on quite a few sites, is that the theme (or plugin, which is an option) allows the user to set a featured image on a post, and it displays, either above the title, or below the title, or spread wide across the header. My own (self promotion alert) plugin, Display Featured Image for Genesis, does this. These all look pretty fabulous from the front, but if you check the backside, you might notice the images aren’t there. Why not?

The problem is that a lot of these themes/plugins are not adding the image to the content, which makes sense if the image is above the title or in the header. Even if it looks like they are, usually they aren’t–they’re adding the image in a place that is only available on the front side of the site. So, from the backside, they might not look…quite…right.

Note: although the Display Featured Image plugin works this way, there is a setting on the plugin page, which I strongly encourage you to use, which will add your featured image to your RSS feed.

Utility ProA theme which handles this the right way is a new one from Carrie Dils called Utility Pro. This is a theme which has way more going for it than just how it handles images, and you totally should check it out, but I’m just going to highlight one of its less prominent features. Carrie’s theme automagically adds the featured image to the beginning of each post, but it does so in a way that makes the image an actual part of the content. Which means that the backside can look just as good as the front side, because the featured image will be part of the feed.

So, big thank you thank you to Carrie, for making sure the Utility Pro backside looks just as nice as the front! (and if you are in the market for a super solid, hugely feature packed theme, check out Utility Pro–also not an affiliate link)

On a related note: Emails can do some especially funny things with images because of the limitations with email, so I’m also a fan of the Send Images to RSS plugin (no kickbacks here either, but another self promotion alert).

So, if you are some kind of content creator, make sure you know what your options are for syndicating (that sounds so fancy, doesn’t it?). Check your site’s feed in a feed reader. If you’re not sharing posts by email, get working on that, and if you are, make sure your email looks like what you think it looks like! Your subscribers will thank you, and your backside will look great.

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