New Media Marketing, Part II – How RSS Can Supercharge Your Legal Communications
By Janet Ellen Raasch
The term “RSS” draws a blank stare from many legal professionals, but what they probably don’t know is that the technology is revolutionizing the way lawyers can connect with their clients, the media and others.
RSS is the emerging technology that has fueled the amazing recent success of blogs on the Internet. Blog software was the first to routinely include the ability to generate an RSS feed. RSS feeds can do much more than propel blogs however. It is a way “push” your message out to users, instead of relying on them to routinely check your Web site for updates.
What is RSS?
RSS (the most commonly accepted acronym for which is “Really Simple Syndication”) is an easy to use method for Web content distribution. Through a simple XML (eXtensible Markup Language) file hosted on your site (often automatically generated by blog software), RSS feeds allow you to deliver news and content directly to your subscribers’ desktops, without them having to remember to check your Web site for updates. For law firms, RSS is the ultimate “push/pull” communications tool.
RSS feeds can be read using newsreader software (or a Web-based newsreader platform) called an RSS reader (also called a “news aggregator”) to easily see when new content is added to a blog or Web site. There are many RSS Readers available, some of which are free (for a listing, view CBA PracticeLink’s “What is RSS?” page).
For the visual learners among us, CNET.com has produced this brief video how-to of RSS:
Watch Video >
Distribution of any content—text, photos, audio or video files—that is posted to the Internet can be enhanced with the addition of an RSS feed. This means that RSS technology can be used with a wide range of existing law firm communications, including Web sites, newsletters, alerts, blog posts, advertising, press releases and internal communications—any activity that involves periodic updates.
Years ago, HTML (HyperText Markup Language) made it possible to publish information on the Internet so that users (and later search engines) could find it. RSS supercharges HTML by making it possible to post content and send it, in real time, to consumers of legal information who have expressed an interest in a firm’s content specifically (by subscribing to a feed) or in the subject matter included in a firm’s post generally (by entering keywords into an RSS search engine or aggregator).
What the reader usually sees with an RSS reader is a headline, description and a link. If the item is of interest, the user can click on the link, which takes the user to the complete post on a blog or Web site. Publishers with less interest in generating Web site traffic may choose to include complete news items in the RSS feed itself.
Law firms that are thinking about re-designing their Web sites should make sure that these sites have RSS capability built in.
In the fall of 2005, Vancouver-based Clark Wilson LLP (www.cwilson.com) announced that it had added 14 RSS feeds to some of the content on its Web site. The 70-attorney firm offers feeds for publications and other updates in the areas of corporate, corporate finance/securities, technology and intellectual property, high learning, insurance, energy, strata property, construction, business litigation, labor and employment, immigration, tax, and tax and estate planning.
“Our database does not have RSS capability,” said Steve Matthews, knowledge services director at Clark Wilson. “However, I really like working with this particular database, so I decided to equip it for RSS. It took me about a month to produce feeds for the existing content in the database behind our website,” said Matthews. “It works like a charm.”
CBA RSS Feeds
The CBA has two feeds of its very own to keep you up-to-speed on all our latest news and CBA PracticeLink updates. Simply copy the addresses into your newsreader to subscribe today:
Not all designers are aware of RSS and its uses however. “Remember that Web site designers are not always content strategists,” said Rick Klau, a lawyer and vice president of Feedburner (www.feedburner.com), a company that works with clients to make their RSS feeds more efficient and measurable. “Make sure that they understand RSS. Make sure that your new Web site works as well as it looks.”
The first Canadian law firm to take advantage of RSS was Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP (www.osler.com), which added RSS feeds for some of its Web site content in 2004.
“We have always prided ourselves on the depth of useful content on our website, and we are always looking for cutting-edge ways to provide better service to our clients,” says Nanette Matys, director of client development at Osler. “RSS feeds seemed like an ideal way for the firm to further both of these goals.”
Prior to 2004, Osler had offered its clients and Web site visitors the opportunity to subscribe to print or e-mail versions of content (including publications, seminar invitations, and other information) in 18 areas of legal interest.
“Many of our subscribers selected the option of having these publications sent to them in e-mail format,” said Robert Reid, Web site manager at Osler. “In fact, we have very few print subscribers anymore. However, as spam filters became more and more sophisticated, we discovered that many of these e-mailed publications were never reaching their intended recipients. RSS offered the solution that we needed to this problem.
“We now code all of our content for both HTML e-mail and RSS feed delivery – and give our clients the choice,” said Reid. “If they prefer RSS, they can download the feed for as few or as many subjects as they choose from our Web site into their feed aggregator. Once this is done, they receive any new content that we post – as soon as we post it – and it is never caught in a spam filter.”
Osler now also offers audio podcasts – similar to online radio shows – on select legal subjects for download by clients and others via RSS feed. The use of RSS-fed podcasts will be covered in more detail in Part 3 of this series.
RSS as a “Push” Tool
When discussing the actual uses of RSS, it is helpful to think in terms of two processes: pushing out information (publishing) and pulling in information (consuming). Law firms and others can use an RSS feed to “push” their content out onto the Internet for all to see. Law firms, clients and potential clients, the media and others can also use an RSS aggregator to “pull in” content that has been posted by others.
Pushing or publishing a law firm’s content to the Internet with an RSS feed has many benefits. First and foremost, it makes the content accessible in real time in a way that is highly attractive to search engines and RSS aggregators.
In addition, since users often click on a link in a feed, RSS feeds drive users to a law firm’s Web site, where they are in an ideal position to learn more about the firm and its services. In addition, since readers must “opt in” to subscribe to the feed, RSS-fed communications offer a way around spam filters.
Generating Media Interest with RSS
RSS feeds help savvy law firms attract the attention of the media. Virtually all of today’s news media post RSS feeds of their content; as a result, most reporters and editors are familiar with and use this tool.
Law firm press releases can be added to RSS feeds and posted on the Internet. If reporters have subscribed to the firm’s feed, press releases will show up on reporters’ desktops in real time. Since they have “opted in” to the firm’s feed, your release will stand out from the hundreds of snail-mail, fax and e-mail releases they receive each day.
Reporters who are unfamiliar with your firm – and therefore have not subscribed to a particular feed – can still learn about it via RSS. Reporters use feed aggregators to keep current with breaking news within their beats. If a lawyer or law firm posts content to the Internet that is tagged with keywords in which the reporter has expressed an interest, the content will go right to the reporter’s desk. This is a much more efficient and less expensive way to attract the attention of media than traditional PR efforts.
“Many reporters and industry-specific publications have picked up our contact information directly from a feed and have contacted the firm for a quote, more information or permission to reprint our content,” says Matthews.
In the same way, economic analysts as well as business and industry leaders are now consuming content from the Internet via RSS aggregators. An RSS feed focused on relevant issues within a target market is a good tool to help a law firm get on the radar of these important market influencers.
RSS for Internal Law Firm Communications
So far, not many law firms are using RSS feeds for internal communications – but this is likely to be the next big thing. RSS could be used to deliver content posted on an intranet or extranet to individuals who are interested in receiving real-time notification when new content is posted on those sites.
RSS feeds also have the potential to be used with client relationship management (CRM) systems, to notify users when new clients or contacts are added – or when changes are made to existing entries.
RSS could even be used to deliver periodic training sessions or seminars – in print, audio or video form.
RSS feeds will likely also be incorporated into document management systems (DMS) like Interwoven in the future. In one of his blogs, Matthews asks: “Does anyone know how long it’s going to be before DMS software will be able to provide RSS feeds for their database search results? I want to be able to search the system and click on a button that will create a dynamic RSS feed for that search. How about, every time a lease was created for a firm client in the aerospace industry, your in-house team was notified via RSS? Or every time a new precedent was added related to privacy law? Or whatever? If you do knowledge management for a living like I do, you know how powerful a tool this could be!”
RSS as a “Pull” Tool
At the other end of the “push/pull” continuum, law firms can also use RSS technology to collect valuable RSS-fed content that has been published to the Internet by others. This simple capability is rapidly revolutionizing the field of legal and business research. In Part 1 of this series, which focuses on blogs, we discussed how this process works for lawyer/bloggers who are searching for relevant content for their posts.
The tool that makes this possible is the RSS feed aggregator, which is similar in interface to the software that is used to read e-mail. Users can use Web-based aggregators or download an aggregator application. One benefit of using an online aggregator is that the account is available to the user anywhere, on any computer or even, increasingly, on any mobile device. The cost of an aggregator ranges from free to about $20 per month. The next version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser will have this feature built in—another reason to harness the power of RSS before its inevitable explosion in popularity.
Currently, RSS feeds are usually denoted by an orange icon with the letters ‘RSS’ or ‘XML’.
However, there is a movement underway to standardize the RSS icon using this symbol:
With this icon currently being used by the popular Firefox browser and set to appear in the next version of Internet Explorer, it will likely become the standard for feeds on the Web.
After choosing an aggregator, you can customize it for your own research purposes by subscribing to RSS feeds of interest and/or defining topics of interest using keywords. To subscribe to an RSS feed, simply copy the feed’s URL or address into the “subscribe” space of the aggregator.
The name of the feed will then appear on your list of feeds in your aggregator. The aggregator then begins to continuously scour the Internet for new content posted to your feeds. When new content is found, the name of the feed is bolded in the list and the number of new posts appears.
RSS subscribers are anonymous and can unsubscribe at any time. This satisfies the need of many users for privacy. “Users like the fact that they control the relationship,” says Reid. “Law firms and other publishers, however, miss out on capturing as much visitor data.”
Techie Timeout: Different Flavors of Syndication
Besides the usual orange ‘RSS’, ‘XML’ or graphical button accompanying an RSS feed, you may also find yourself bogged down in references to RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0, RDF and ATOM.
The XML (eXtensible Markup Language) specification is used to create feeds. Currently, there are three popular “dialects” of XML – RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0 and Atom. It is relatively easy to convert one into the other and the average user does not need to know the difference. Most blog software will make RSS and ATOM feeds automatically.
The most common format is RSS, which is why this term is used generically in the accompanying article. RSS has been defined as an acronym standing for Really Simple Syndication, Rich Site Summary or RDF Site Summary. The creator of RSS 2.0 believes that it should be considered simply a name rather than an acronym for anything at all.
RSS 1.0 is based on RDF (resource description framework) specifications. It harkens back to the fairly recent origins of syndication (RSS 0.90); it was used in 1999 to power My Netscape. It is considered to be complex.
RSS 2.0 is a simpler dialect that is most commonly used. It grew out of an alternative attempt to simplify RSS 0.90 through versions 0.92, 0.93, 0.94 and finally 2.0 – which was released in Sept. 2002.
ATOM was developed in 2003 and 2004, partly in reaction to the contentious split in RSS technology. Atom 1.0 was published in July 2005 and accepted as a standard in December 2005. Supporters assert that ATOM improves on both branches of RSS; opponents claim that it unnecessarily introduces a third branch of syndication specifications – further confusing the marketplace.
RSS for Legal Research
An RSS aggregator allows lawyers to monitor content on tens or even hundreds of blogs, websites or other RSS-enabled posts without actually visiting each and every one of those sites every day. Research that used to take countless hours in the law library is now automated.
“Your aggregator is like your personal newspaper,” says Matthews, “a newspaper that you designed to meet your specific needs and interests. Each morning I scan the latest articles from 100 different news sources that are vital to my profession, in about 15 minutes. I don’t have to wait two months for a print journal to arrive in my mailbox.”
For legal research purposes, an increasing amount of legislation, regulation, case law and journal information is now available with an RSS feed. Businesses and associations are also using RSS feeds for their content, as are most mainstream and business media. For business research purposes, an RSS aggregator can help a law firm track individual clients and potential clients, their press coverage, their industries, their associations and the legal issues that are affecting them. Just put the client name and other keywords into an RSS-enabled search engine.
Lawyers and law firms who want to participate fully and flourish in the next generation of practicing law and doing business online would be wise embrace both the push and pull of RSS technology.
“When I demonstrate an RSS aggregator to new lawyers who join Clark Wilson, they are just blown away,” says Matthews. “Once they start using it, they can’t imagine keeping current without it.”
Janet Ellen Raasch is a writer/ghostwriter who works closely with lawyers and other professional services providers – helping them promote themselves as thought leaders within their target markets through publication of articles, books, white papers and rich content for the Internet. She can be reached at (303) 399-5041 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Neither the author nor the CBA should be construed as endorsing any product or website listed in this article. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CBA.|
In this document, any reference to "jurist" or "lawyer" includes, where appropriate, "Québec notary".