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Interview with Phil Hollows Founder of FeedBlitz

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And now for something completely different. Since so much of what’s covered here on Online Marketing Blog deals with the marketing of blogs, I thought adding some interviews with people involved with blog marketing would be of interest to our fast growing audience of readers.

Today’s interview is with Phil Hollows, Founder and CEO of the popular RSS to email service, FeedBlitz. With an active circulation of 682,330 and 53,955 active feeds, FeedBlitz is likely the most popular RSS to email service available. I had a chance to preview some features of FeedBlitz a while back and have been using it personally and with our PR and blog consulting clients ever since. Recently Phil took FeedBlitz on as a full time gig, has secured investor financing and is hiring. What better time than now to check in with Phil for a peek behind the FeedBlitz curtain.

Tell us about your background. How did you get involved with blogs, RSS and starting FeedBlitz?

I first started blogging when I was VP marketing for an enterprise security software company, OpenService, about a couple of years ago. I was looking for a way to reach our prospects and customers more informally and more frequently than the traditional monthly newsletter or press release permitted. Setting up a blog was the obvious answer, and it worked well. The blog let us build a closer and more trusted relationship with our market, helped establish thought leadership, and brought good SEO benefits – carefully written, good relevant blog posts can often appear on SERPs relevant to the business.

So the blog was great, but I wanted too get email updates going to push the content out to our readers. RSS was part of the blog, of course, but I wanted to reach as wide an audience as possible. RSS is tech heavy, unfamiliar to many and potentially user hostile, and I wanted a more familiar, comfortable way to reach our readers. In other words, email. Plus we had a five figure house list already receiving monthly email newsletters from us, so it made sense to get the blog to them using email since they were already used to hearing from us that way.

I signed up with Bloglet, which was the market leader at the time. It worked fine, But then I signed up with FeedBurner, and Bloglet didn’t like FeedBurner’s feeds. Say what? Support messages bounced and all of a sudden my pet project was at risk from an unsupported service that wasn’t playing nicely with my other systems.

I wasn’t about to let that happen. After extensive Googling and asking around I found a few alternatives, but none of them had what I really liked about Bloglet – it’s publisher features. I needed a service that let me manage my subscribers, and there was nothing else around that could match these criteria.

This was the perfect opportunity for me. I saw the complaints about Bloglet online, and the market gap that nobody was filling. And, as luck would have it, from some experimental work I’d done at home in the late nineties, I happened to have an embryonic email marketing system partially written. I figured that all I had to do was dust it off, get it fed from an RSS feed and I’d be done, and maybe others would be interested in using it too.

Well, the work was of course much more complex than I’d originally thought, that’s for sure. But that was the beginning of the project that became FeedBlitz. Many, many late nights later, once it was more or less ready, there still weren’t any products filling the gap. So I mailed a few people who had been public about their dissatisfaction with Bloglet, invited them to check it out, and it grew rapidly from there.

I should let you know, the first SEO service I started in 1998 was called Net-Blitz. So naturally I like the name you’ve picked. How did you arrive at the name FeedBlitz?

Really? It’s a small world I’d owned the domain blitrzware.com for a while (but I let it go before FeedBlitz – drat!). As I was searching for a domain name all of the obvious ones had gone, and then I remembered Blitzware. FeedBlitz was available, I liked the “lightning” connotation of brightness, intensity, speed, and it hearkened back to the Blitzware name I’d used before. Perfect!

So now you have moved on from OpenService, gained some financial backing and are taking FeedBlitz full time. What are your plans for FeedBlitz? Feature enhancments? Where do you see FeedBlitz in the next year or two?

1) FeedBlitz will remain the Internet’s preeminent RSS to email service. We’ll continue to add more value and more capabilities, more easily delivered for publishers.

2) We will set the bar higher and higher in terms of the benefits we deliver for both our standard and premium services.

3) We will innovate and automate enterprise-class messaging and communications using RSS and “Web 2″ for all.

As I look at the RSS to mail market today, one of the core strategic decisions I have to take is deciding what we’re not going to do, because the realm of possibilities is so large. It boils down to this. Our mission is messaging using RSS and related technologies to underpin what we deliver. And our philosophy is to make your messaging work with whatever services you want to use. So you will see us enabling greater and simpler integration with third party services, instead of adding features or services that are already successful and prevalent in the broader market. We will stay focused, in other words. We’ll also make it easy for third parties to integrate FeedBlitz into their sites and services.

The next three months is going to see significant innovation from us on all these fronts. There will also be enhancements that make more use of content in a typical RSS feed. The FeedBlitz blog is the place to track new features and announcements. We’re also using some of our investment on a professionally redesigned web site that will be radically easier to use, as well as being easier on the eye.

FeedBlitz has become a very popular RSS to email service. How did you market it? What marketing plans do you have in the future?

Thanks! There were really two strategies at work. One was to make the most of the market opportunity created by Bloglet, so we made it utterly painless to migrate subscribers out of Bloglet and into FeedBlitz. (We’re an open system too, so publishers can grab their readers at any time).

Secondly, we worked directly with a few key bloggers who seemed to want the services we offered. We paid attention to them, used their ideas to improve the service, and so they’d blog about us and recommend us to others.

As a result, our initial success and work integrating FeedBlitz metrics with FeedBurner enabled FeedBlitz to be set up as FeedBurner’s email engine of choice last Fall. FeedBurner effectively became a channel for us, and that’s still the case for publishers wanting more sophisticated capabilities and customization.

Together, these three approaches delivered a phenomenal word of mouth / viral effect that just keeps on growing, with time and customer care being our #1 investments.

Going forward, we’ll be making the most of our partnerships and innovation to keep momentum up.

When we check our RSS stats, about 1/3 are from FeedBlitz, a 1/3 are from Bloglines and the rest from MyYahoo and other feed readers. Is that common for your subscribers?

It really varies. The FeedBlitz News blog’s readership is over 95% by mail. The more RSS-aware your readers are, the smaller the number of email subscribers you should expect to get. So, for example, a tech heavy blog talking to a tech savvy audience might see incremental circulation of order 10%. On the other hand, a blog talking to consumers about a hobby or family matters might get over 50% of their readership from FeedBlitz. But regardless of your content, everyone will see incremental readership because now you’re giving your readers choices about how to read your content.

Enabling readers to subscribe to your content using email takes advantage of a familiar medium. From a publisher perspective, it also makes it personal – you know the addresses of most of your subscribers. Those are all potential leads. RSS aggregators can’t tell you who is reading your content, so from a marketing and sales process, aggregator circulation is a lot less valuable than an equivalent email circulation count.

For the most part, FeedBlitz is used to convert blog posts that are published in a RSS feed to Email. What other applications and uses are you seeing?

The beauty of RSS and related technologies such as OPML reading lists is that FeedBlitz just works. As “Web 2.0″ grows, FeedBlitz will be able to deliver these innovative applications directly to users inboxes.

Indeed, many sites and systems are publishing RSS feeds, beyond blog posts. We’re seeing email updates of eBay auctions. People are using FeedBlitz to deliver their local weather forecast to their inbox every morning. Using FeedBlitz to track tags in, say, Technorati is a great way to automatically gather market intelligence about what people are saying about you (and your competition). We’re seeing users replace listservers and simple discussion groups with blogs and FeedBlitz – the content is richer, and less prone to spamming. And it sends blog updates too, of course.

We’re also seeing more traditional corporate marketers realizing that a blog coupled with FeedBlitz is a simple yet powerful combination that can do the job of much more expensive systems – but for much less time invested and at a better price point. It’s for these users that we are the only RSS to mail service that offers a blog-based autoresponder capability, for example, as well as the recently introduced “newsflash” broadcast option which sends updates to your readership that are NOT in an RSS feed.

As we move forward and enable even simper integration of FeedBlitz with other services, I expect our publishers will produce a swath of innovative applications that will incorporate FeedBlitz, and I expect that you will see much more FeedBlitz in places other than your inbox.

Please explain what’s behind FeedAdvisor and what has been the response to it? Any plans on making it into an open blog/RSS feed search tool?

FeedAdvisor is a new spin on searching and ranking blogs. It’s like Amazon.com’s feature that recommends books to you based on “People who bought this book also bought.” So FeedAdvisor looks at subscription patterns and says “People who subscribe to your feeds also subscribe to .”

FeedAdvisor works because of the subscription patterns it detects. It’s time is yet to come, I believe, but Tom Evslin (our investor) and I have had some very interesting conversations about how it will grow. It can’t become just another search engine because (a) there are a lot of these about anyway, (b) generic search doesn’t have the subscription information that FeedAdvisor uses to analyze the data, so in fact it won’t work. Amazon’s feature is the same; they work from their sales patterns, and don’t incorporate (say) Barnes & Nobles’. As FeedBlitz grows and more users join, it will become increasingly comprehensive, and we will be able to build out the information in it to augment our other services.

Starting FeedBlitz and working with thousands of subscribers must have exposed you to some interesting and innovative blog and RSS marketing trends. What insights can you provide regarding marketing via RSS? What aspects of RSS marketing should companies be aware of most?

I think the thing to think about is not “RSS Marketing” but “RSS-powered marketing.” If you position programs based solely on content delivered to or in RSS then your return will be low and you may be disappointed unless you’re dealing with a very technical audience for whom RSS is old hat. For example, many are disappointed by ads placed purely in RSS feeds as they perform relatively poorly compared to other media. Targeting RSS as a niche medium isn’t the path to success.

On the other hand, if you build, augment or replace your marketing programs and technologies with services and products that use RSS as the underlying data mechanism, and simply treat your pure RSS feed as an integrated part of (as opposed to distinct from) your web marketing, you’ll do very well. Why? Not necessarily because it’s RSS per se, but because technologies that have RSS at their core are much more flexible, easier to use and just as capable – if not more so – then their older online or desktop cousins. For example, you can ditch your expensive content management system for a blogging platform. It’s faster, cheaper and probably better for most of us. Add FeedBlitz and your newsletter production is painless, more frequent, and automatically linked back to your site. Plus it’s a boon or search engines because now your content is changing rapidly and, thanks to trackbacks and comments, relevant blogs get a lot of high value link love, with other people – your readers – doing all the work for you.

The power of these technologies is illustrated by the fact that corporations are now building large, complex and content rich web sites solely on blogging platforms – the efficiency gains alone make this approach worthwhile for a lot of non-data driven content. That’s a clear trend that will only accelerate.

In the end, I believe RSS will disappear into the woodwork, just as HTTP and SSL and SMTP have now. It will become the glue that enables dynamic web sites and content to link together seamlessly. It’s the applications that use RSS that are key, not RSS itself. And the same is true for marketers. Ask yourself how you can take advantage of RSS to reach a more technically savvy audience or to automate otherwise tedious and repetitive tasks (e.g. newsletter production). RSS-powered automation and services enables us to spend more time doing marketing, and less time (and money) doing production.

What are some of your favorite business blogs and blogs about blogging?

I believe in actionable, relevant and practical solutions to practical problems. So of the well known blogs, I follow Fred Wilson, my investor Tom Evslin, Chris Pirillo, TechCrunch, Steve Rubel’s Micropersuasion, Guy Kawaski and Seth Goldstein (all by FeedBlitz of course). At the enterprise level I think Charlie Wood is on to something with his work in salesforce.com and RSS. I use Technorati and Google blog search for market and competitive intelligence.

Ssshhh, don’t tell anyone I said this, but I find most blogs about blogging to be very cliquey and practically irrelevant; I don’t read them. I don’t care about this video blogger or that format war or whoever such and such an A-lister has annoyed this week. It’s all too incestuous and irrelevant for me.

What 3 tips can you provide to bloggers that are considering or using a RSS to email service?

1) Why not? You’ll get 10-50% circulation boost, push content delivery, better SERP placement, gain lead information, develop metrics, all automatically.

2) Customize your emails to match your branding and messaging, and enable subscriber tracking metrics to measure your activity and effectiveness.

3) Don’t wait. It’s fundamentally free, takes only a minute or so to set up, just do it.

Some excellent insight and advice. Thanks Phil!

Lee Odden is President and Founder of
TopRank Online Marketing, specializing in organic SEO, blog
marketing and online public relations. He’s been cited as a search
marketing expert by publications including U.S. News & World Report and
The Economist and has implemented successful search marketing programs
with top BtoB companies of all sizes. Odden shares his marketing
expertise at Online Marketing Blog offering
daily news, interviews and best practices.

Interview with Phil Hollows Founder of FeedBlitz
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About Lee Odden
Lee Odden is CEO of TopRank Online Marketing, a digital marketing and public relations firm in Minnesota that specializes in search, social and online PR consulting and training for companies worldwide. Odden has been cited for his internet marketing expertise over the past 10 years by the Economist, Forbes and U.S. News and contributed a chapter to the book, "Online Marketing Heroes" published by Wiley. For the past 5 years he has also been the editor of TopRank's Online Marketing Blog, a Technorati 100 favorite blog and one of the top marketing blogs according to Advertising Age. WebProNews Writer
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