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Quick Thoughts on RSS Advertising Effectiveness

Published by Chris Coyier

I've recently been trying RSS advertising here on CSS-Tricks through BuySellAds. Three or four advertisers have tried it and none have stuck around. Not a total loss from my perspective, but certainly not great.

One such advertiser was ShopHTML, which was one of those services which converts your graphic designs into working web pages. Here's the main ad they ran:

It received 37 clicks from 70,189 impressions, which is a 0.05% CTR (click through rate). Those clicks generated zero sales for them. That's pretty much the bottom of the barrel for advertising effectiveness for ads on CSS-Tricks. Especially with some ads performing as well as 1.25% CTR (25 times better).

I thought I'd spout out some totally unscientific opinionated points about what I think is going on here.

Is this the right audience?

Web design service... Web design blog... Seems like a perfect fit on the surface. But who are they people that read the articles on this site? I don't have to guess, they are web designers. I'd say most of them are the kind of people that don't need a design converting service, because that's already their specialty. It's a bit like selling "Birdwatching for Dummies" at a Birdwatching convention. The majority of people there don't have any need for it. I'd guess the best target for web design conversion services would be people that have a need for a website but not the skills to build it. So perhaps targeting graphic (not web) design blogs, business sites, and maybe that genre of blogs-about-blogs where aspiring bloggers are constantly being given advice that design matters.

It's (almost) a commodity market.

It's like gasoline. There is lots of demand, but people just pick the one that's right in front of them. That's not entirely true as it seems in this market there is differentiation in price, promises, exact services, etc., but the core service is essentially the same and the price across all of them is "way cheap." This means in order to compete and succeed you need to be everywhere (i.e. put a gas station at every exit / advertise on everything known to man) or change something to get yourself out of the commodity market (i.e. offer actual design services / change core business).

Long-time CSS-Tricks advertiser PSD 2 HTML has taken the "everywhere" approach as they seem to have an ad everywhere you look. Another CSS-Tricks advertiser WP Coder has taken the opposite approach and changed into more of an design/development agency.

Design matters

Design matters all the time, but when you advertise to designers, doubly so. The banners that ShopHTML ran, at the risk of sounding like a jerk, just aren't very well designed. Here's a variety of them that they tested (I like the testing part, that's smart):

They feel unbalanced. The text isn't kerned. The font looks like a low quality knockoff of a real slab serif. There are some weird color and size choices some of which leading to hard to read text. While I know that these folks don't do design, they do design conversion, it still doesn't instill confidence that they are all about high quality work. These guys might be the best in the business: high quality, nice people, hard working... but unfortunately you gotta convince me of that with just a little ad. These ads aren't doing it.

Why click?

An ad in an RSS feed is the most fleeting of all ads. If the person doesn't click your ad right then and there while reading that article, the chance is lost forever. Time to get creative. When we did a little display advertising at Wufoo for an API contest where we were giving away a battle axe, one ad we tested was just an image of the axe and that's it. It was the best performing ad, no doubt due to people's curiosity.

My fault

I'm part of the problem too. People told me ads would do better if they were bigger and at the top of the feed instead of the bottom. I'm sure they are right but I think both of those options are annoying so I didn't do them. I have the job of balancing respect for the reader with respect for the advertisers and sometimes I don't get that right.

I could provide advice like this before the ad runs instead of after as well. I'll try. I think RSS advertising has untapped potential worth exploring.


  1. Perhaps I am an exception, but I don’t read articles in the feed. I prefer to go to the website to read them. I use Google Reader, and it is possible to open a link without actually seeing anything but the title. So I almost never see RSS ads, because I rarely open up the article itself, at least for sites like yours.

    • I only read RSS feeds on my cellphone if I can’t get to one of my laptops or my computer. But it’s pretty content-decisive, because reading a feed about CSS or any code (PHP, Java, JS and the like) isn’t something that really works in a feed.

  2. RSS ads just don’t work. I’ve tried them before on another blog. No one ever clicks, whether it’s at the top or bottom, an image or text. I think you have to think even more about the audience. They’re people who subscribed via RSS because they want to see just the content–not ads. So it seems logical that RSS subscribers are going to be the most ad adverse audience, thus the low CTR. Plus, people consume RSS feeds through multiple devices (i.e. phone) where they have limited functionality, screen availability, bandwidth, etc–and they wouldn’t risk clicking an ad.

    Just my two cents. It’d be awesome to hear from someone who has had success with RSS advertising.

  3. royler

    if you had shirts or mugs for css tricks, ads for that stuff would probly do better in the rss feeds. ads for stuff you like would probably do okay too. forrst, are my sites up, and your book would probly do well, even if they dont pay you, advertising the community and trying to get people to look at more good resources could be non-quantifiabe but still beneficial.

  4. John Gruber appears to to sell Daring Fireball feed sponsorships quite successfully. Perhaps the important difference is that rather than placing something at the bottom of every article, he makes the advert a whole feed item in its own right.

  5. lastlifelost

    Honestly, I had no idea the site even had ads on it! Even while reading this article the ads you included were blocked by AdBlock. I had to turn the add-on off in order to see the examples. Is it possible that this could be a reason for some of the low CTR? I would assume that web savvy users, like designers, would be more likely to have add-on features like this installed in their browsers. Am I off base?

  6. Yeah, the ads should definitely be on the top of the feed. They aren’t noticable at all on the bottom, that’s why the rate was so low.

  7. I read this site only via RSS and only open it if I comment, which is rarely. I use Google Reader but never even noticed your feed had ads. I’m not blocking them, I simply don’t see them. Its ad-blindness in action.

    @chrisl is right: RSS is not a mainstream channel. Almost by definition it is for very web savvy users. They either don’t see ads or are very clever in exploring them.

    For the record, I perfectly accept ads on a website and for that reason never use ad blockers. Free content comes at a price.

  8. Your feed just ends up in my list of webdev feeds and then get’s tweeted to @jmxWebDev, which has it’s own column in TweetDeck for me. Really no ads seen.

  9. RSS adds don’t show up in the firefox livebookmark thingy.. hence no clicks from me.
    I also agree with your point on target audience, cause I did check the other ‘more intresting’ adds

  10. If you care about your readers, you better remove ads from rss feed.
    @chrisl is 100% right.

  11. I only use the feed for this site as a notification and always read the full article on the website itself after scanning the feed quickly. Only two of the feeds I subscribe to have ads in them and I barely even look at them.

    That said, this article read more like a discussion on where ShopHTML are going wrong than on ads in RSS.

  12. Yep… I read via RSS also. However, even if I had seen the ads, there is one glaring error that would make me run away screaming from this service:


    They can’t even get the name right?

  13. Rats. The blog automatically corrected the error.

    Look at the ads – the “p” is lower case.

  14. I also find large ads at the beginning of articles to be offensive. Thanks for the candid observations.

  15. Permalink to comment#

    Great article Chris. Very well written, and I agree with a lot of your points.

  16. Am I the only guy reading his RSS Feeds offline? I’m pretty sure I’m not.

    And if you read the feeds offline, there’s simply no way for an ad to work.

  17. Greg
    Permalink to comment#

    In my experience as a consumer, I read RSS feeds in a hurry as I’m trying to get through a large amount of content, which translates to I have less time to consider an ad. that’s in front of me. The consequence of that is the ad. needs to be able to convey what it’s for to the intended audience VERY quickly.

    Your examples were interesting because, although I’m not a web site designer, the services are of marginal interest. What I didn’t understand (until I read your article) was this was a service to turn my design into wordpress content, and I’m not going to stop to spend time to decode the meaning of the ad.

    While it might be me personally, the one I’d most likely click on is the one with the price. It’s similar to reading print advertising. 40% off an unknown price is meaningless, no pricing makes me wonder if this is some expensive service, and would take a lot of interaction to establish a price range, whereas knowing a price (even for something largely unknown) creates a reference point.

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