Why Feed Numbers Are (Probably) Ridiculous

January 19th, 2013

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A couple of employment lifetimes ago, I spent the better part of my days writing and editing newsstand magazines. I also did marketing, sold ads and mopped up water during the occasional flood of our basement office.

Anyway, when the discussion got around to readership numbers, the conversation in our office went more or less the same way it did in every magazine office: Readership equals number of copies sold times some pass-along factor, usually in the range of about 2.5 or thereabouts.

I was thinking about this today because I was setting up a new phone. As an information junkie, I have a lot of apps that aggregate RSS feeds, things like Google Reader, Pulse, Flipboard and more.

I noticed that I tend to repeat some of my favorite news and information feeds in multiple places, which then led me to think about the publisher looking at the numbers: “We have 100,000 RSS subscribers, so we must have 100,000 readers! Woo hoo!”

Except not so much. That 100,000 might mean 50,000 or even 25,000.

There may be some study out there that’s looked very closely at RSS feed subscription numbers and drills down into the data to determine how reliable they really are. I haven’t seen one, which is not to say they don’t exist, and I’d love to know what the RSS version of the pass-along factor might be.

I’m pretty sure, though, that 100,000 feed subscribers does not mean 100,000 readers. Probably not even close.

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