Case study: Softrax – powering news for financial executives with RSS

3 Comments 10.06.07

One of my favorite clients that I’ve consulted with in recent weeks is a Massachusetts based company called Softrax. I helped put together a unique and powerful newswire system for their website RevenueRecognition.com. The site’s subtitle is “revenue management resources for today’s financial executive.”

Softrax came to me with almost no experience in using new web applications and by the time our work together was done they had a topical OPML file, a system to easily aggregate industry news on their website and a solid initiation into the web 2.0 experience. This case study is an example of one sort of plan I help clients strategize and implement.

The problem

The RevenueRecognition website has quite a lot of content on it but the company felt that it wasn’t dynamic and timely enough to retain as many of their first-time visitors as they would like. They knew just enough about RSS to know that it might be the solution to their problem.

The solution: a short version

Here’s the short version for people familiar with the concepts. If this is new to you, read the next section below for a more detailed explanation. To summarize: I built the company an OPML file for their industry by finding feeds, scraping feeds from sites that didn’t have them (most in the accounting world) and turning email lists into RSS feeds.

I showed them how to choose and use a feed reader. Then I set them up a work-flow that would allow them to populate sections of their website with news simply by tagging items of interest in their feed reader with the social bookmarking service Del.icio.us and syndicating the Del.icio.us RSS feeds for various tags back onto their own site. Check it out, that’s what’s happening in the grey “news” box front and center on RevenueRecognition.com. The descriptive text on the left side is from the “notes” field in del.icio.us. I’ve also put an image of that part of the page below.

This turned RevenueRecognition.com into an aggregator of the best news in their industry, giving them a chance to become the go-to resource of choice for people interested in what’s happening in the world of accounting.

I also advised them on how to appropriately excerpt third party content and briefed them on their options for in-house creation of original content.

Feedback

“Marshall provided us with a very effective and manageable system to bring a wide range of relevant news content onto our site. He did a great job managing the project – it required minimal technical resources and was very cost-effective. Our percentage of returning visitors and our depth of visit metrics have both improved since the implementation.”
-Gerry Murray, Director Corporate Communications for Softrax.

The solution: non-technical explanation

Here’s an explanation of the work I did with Softrax, without the acronyms. The company provided me a list of their favorite websites they visit for news about accounting and search terms they use to search for topical news. I also identified the most authoritative accounting blogs for them.

I then put together a system that checks all of these web pages, news searches and top blogs for any new information available and delivers it automatically to one place, an application called a “feed reader.” I showed Softrax a variety of different feed readers they could chose between and we discussed the benefits and disadvantages of each. It was easy for them to try out each one by loading a file I built for them with all their web page feeds into each feed reader. We talked through the basic features of a feed reader over the phone while we both looked at screenshots I sent them from my computer.

Once a feed reader was chosen (FeedDemon in this case) I showed Softrax how to organize and filter all the information coming in. We set up a simple system by which they could “tag” any news item that they wanted to display on their web site – with just a click and a typed-in description of the story, it is sent to appear as a link with descriptive text on the RevenueRecognition site (see image above).

This content is kept up to date without ever touching the code of the page itself. It couldn’t be simpler, and yet it’s quite a powerful system.

Why: Why would you want to put a bunch of links on your site that lead off site?

There is so much information flying around in the world today that the role of information-curator, “cool hunter” or trusted collector is becoming an increasingly powerful one to play. Some of the top blogs on the web, multi-million dollar media companies now, are far more focused in vetting the best information from all around the internet than they are in doing their own original reporting.

Obviously original content creation is important – but the point is that if you can offer a timely collection of high quality resources in one place, you can play a leadership role in your industry. People will come back again and again to see what you have had the time (or the technology) to discover. I believe the system we set up will lead to significant increases in visitor retention, and thus increased sales of their services, over time. (See feedback quote on this above.)

If Softrax can populate its news section to the satisfaction of its visitors – then come sales pitch time, it will have the added advantage of having already established itself as capable of adding value to the work lives of potential customers.

Additionally, in and of itself, the creation of a system to pull accounting industry news into one place automatically gives Softrax a first-mover’s advantage on any number of events that other companies may have to search for manually or wait on industry press to report on.

How we worked together

My work with Softrax consisted of a number of conversations on the telephone, time spent assembling resources for them and troubleshooting the initial implementation during testing. I used Grazr set up on a wiki page to demonstrate how an OPML file works and screenshots of various feed-readers in action to discuss their functionality and relative merits.

All of this ended up working wonderfully; after each conversation on the phone my contacts at Softrax remarked that the technology, our plans and the power behind it all were becoming clear and clearer. Eventually they had such a firm grasp of this relatively complicated chain of applications that I only had to answer passing questions while they took the lead with the project.

The final implementation isn’t perfect yet, but it’s pretty darned good. The company’s website and relationship to industry news have changed radically; they now have the infrastructure and the strategy to establish themselves as a go-to source for accounting industry news. As a result, they’ll have more opportunity to put their products in front of prospective customers and more credibility as an established “value adder” when they do so.

This is but one example

My work with Softrax is just one of my favorite recent examples of consulting work I’ve done. I’ve also been doing online product usability and market analysis and assisting in forming launch strategies. There’s lot of things we can do together – including just talk about what you’re doing and how new tools and emerging players on the web could help you do it better. If you’re interested in working with me on a project or on an ongoing support basis just drop me a line. Contact info can be found at the top of this page.


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  • SharonG

    Nice Marshall. Thanks for the well written case study.

  • Matt Stotts

    How did you make Delicious a CMS? did it post immediately to their site? I’m building something similar layered over google reader giving the user template choices – quote, post, photo, etc.

  • What will this company do when Delicious shuts down?