Distribution without tears

Written somewhere over Kansas on the way to WordCamp for Publishers. Please look me up if you want to chat about this post.

This is a shameless pitch for a plugin to WordPress my company just published but there are also broader ideas proposed here and I would love your feedback.

SmartNews is a mobile news aggregation app. The backend tech is pretty nifty. It uses machine learning and what we call a “discovery algorithm” to expose users to new points of view that they might not see if they are using a social network or personalized news service to read their news. You can read more about that stuff here, that’s not what this blog post is about.

SmartNews aggregates news from our partners. If we have no news, we have nothing for our users to read. While it’s possible to crawl the web and pull in stories as we find them on the open web, we would prefer a relationship with each of our publishing partners so they send us their articles and feel in control of how their content is used by SmartNews. We want our partners to feel as if the SmartNews app is an extension of their CMS. If our partners are not successful, neither will SmartNews.

While we do send traffic to our publishers (lots of it) that’s not the only benefit we offer. We have architected the product to offer a snappier, native view (think of Safari or Chrome’s reader mode) of the articles. Because this view is hosted on our app, our users can read while offline. The SmartView page in SmartNews was designed to serve the subway commuter in Tokyo where signals were spotty.

But we wanted to make sure publishers had a benefit when readers chose to read their articles via the SmartView page. Thus the SmartFormat feed spec was born. SmartFormat is a simple variant of the RSS standard with a couple new elements to provide greater portability of not only a publisher’s articles but also their advertising and analytics.

The <snf:advertisement> element lets publishers provide an ad tag which we run on the SmartView page. Because this is the publisher’s ad tag, the publisher keeps 100% of the revenue.

The <snf:analytics> element lets the publisher send along the analytics bug so they can include SmartView pageviews in the total pageviews that they see on their dashboard.

Combined, both the <snf:advertisment> and <snf:analytics> allow for portability of not only content but also advertising. Now when a publisher distributes a full text feed to SmartNews they also are distributing the monetization and analtyics footprint as well. While other platforms require you to opt in to revenue shares on the platform’s advertising and analytics, SmartNews lets you use and optimize your own, dynamically, on a feed endpoint you control.

Now to the fun part. If you’re running on WordPress, we have a simple plugin that will open up two text boxes, one for and one for and will build a SmartFormat feed compliant with the SmartFormat feed spec. In order to get distribution on SmartNews, all you have to do is apply to be a publisher on SmartNews, install the plug-in, then you’re ready to go!

Settings page of SmartNews SmartFormat plugin

As for the broader proposal, I was curious (and I could very well be looking in the wrong places) why no one has attempted to extend RSS in this way before? Feedburner had something where they injected Google Ads into their RSS feeds but it never really took off because those ads only ran in the feed or feedreader, not on the downstream aggregation sites or platforms. As much as I am loath to try and extend a standard, wouldn’t it benefit publishers to have a place where they can add their ad tag, analytics scripts, and even subscription CTAs so that the business travels along with the editorial?

<snf:advertisement> and <snf:analytics> work great for SmartNews but what about extending it for others? The more platforms that accept this extended feed, the more incentive there is for publishers to create these feeds. Seems like the classic win-win all around. Besides the bureaucratic lift of trying to extend a “standard” such as RSS am I missing something?

NOTE: The SmartFormat plugin for WordPress is currently under review. I will post a link here as soon as it’s published.

Thanks to @MrYhira for the inspiration for this plugin.

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