I have a theory about ads in RSS. It's based on my assumption that people won't click on ads in feeds enough for publishers to make much money. So I think we may be looking at the whole ads in feeds issue the wrong way. Allow me to explain...
When someone subscribes to your RSS feed, it means they want to start up an ongoing reader-writer relationship with you. They have faith in you to produce content that has ongoing value to them. They trust you and subscribing to your RSS feed is in effect a vote of loyalty. The subscriber is saying: hey, keep up the good work fella, I'm interested in what you have to say and I'll keep reading you.
If that's the case, I'm wondering if ads in RSS feeds have more value to both publishers and advertisers as a branding and marketing exercise.
So, as a blog publisher, if I'm writing quality content on the topic of cars, for example, then I want to attract advertisers for my RSS feed who are in the car business and who want my blog's content to reflect well on them. Why? Because the advertiser's image is enhanced by association with my car blog. The RSS subscribers will probably not click on the advert, but it doesn't matter because the readers will associate my car blog with the advertiser.
And I think this isn't just confined to actual subscribers either - I think over time the 'association by feed' will, by word of mouth and other viral, social methods, spread out to much more of the population that you might first think. This is Web 2.0 after all, the Social Web.
Further, there is evidence out there that the association is per post - which plays into the strengths of RSS feeds (posts are published over time). This is from an interview with Feedburner CEO Dick Costolo:
"How RSS ads should best be targeted was something else Feedburner considered in its testing. It found readers psychologically associated an ad with the individual post in which it appeared. On a site, the ad is usually considered part of the site as a whole."
Now I don't know what the technical marketing term is for this - anyone know? But the idea is that the advertiser becomes closely associated with a blog's content, because it is regularly distributed to a core group of readers who have shown loyalty to the blogger by subscribing to the RSS feed. So the reputation the blogger has, via great content or other factors, rubs off on the advertisers and that is where the value is.
If this is the case, then it also begs this question regarding programs like Google Adsense for feeds: even if ads in RSS are contextual (and I have to say so far the Google feed ads are less than satisfactory on that count), does the branding of the advertisers stand out enough for them to be closely associated with the content? If all the Google or Overture ads look the same, then is there that same 'brand by association' feel about the ads? I suspect not, which is why Google and Overture ads have click-through based revenue models.
This is just brainstorming from me... but the conclusion I'm coming to is that click-through ads are the wrong business model for RSS feeds. Further, unless Google and Overture can hook me up with advertisers that closely fit my niche and who are willing to forgo the pay-per-click model in favour of a brand-based impression model - I'm not sure I want to continue with Google ads in feeds. Particularly if all the ads have the same bland look.
What do you think?