It used to be that corporate intelligence -- whether it was about customers or competitors -- required hours of painstaking work poring through news clippings, analyzing webpages, and compiling notes on transactions, phone calls, and competitive coups to stay current.

But now with RSS -- short for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary -- up-to-the-moment data can arrive automatically in e-mail, RSS aggregators or be incorporated into a company's customer relationship management (CRM) system. Rather than forcing you to hunt for the required data, RSS sends the information automatically to you the moment it's available.

RSS channels, or "feeds," provide instant notifications about updates or changes to a website. The technology first came into widespread use among bloggers, who wanted to notify readers about changes to their weblogs without having to organize and maintain a list of e-mail addresses. RSS aggregators, or "newsreaders," were developed to access feeds automatically, saving the user the hassle of checking websites repeatedly for updates and changes.

Business uses for RSS

Business has found ways to expand RSS beyond simple convenience into the realm of strategic necessity. "Competitive intelligence and brand marketing are two of the bigger use cases for RSS," says Todd Berkowitz, director of marketing for NewsGator, of Denver, Colo., one of the most popular RSS aggregators. "There has been a big push into enterprise RSS systems that give companies the ability to subscribe entire groups of people to feeds that don't necessarily jump out and say, 'Hey! This is RSS!"

In many cases, the people within a company who most need the information that RSS can provide are among the least technically savvy. So it's crucial to make RSS technically painless. NewsGator created an enterprise server product that lets companies manage feeds centrally, pushing data out to personnel in the best position to make use of it. Competing syndication solutions are available from Attensa and KnowNow.

"Blogs and other social media tools are going to become an important part of doing business, but just how valuable are they without a way to read and aggregate them?" notes Trapper Markelz, a senior project manager at executive recruiting firm Spencer Stuart, which is using NewsGator to put critical information in front of its recruiters. "Delivering relevant, timely information in an easy-to-consume way is a challenge in most enterprises, but RSS is a great way to solve this problem. I expect it to become an indispensable technology for most businesses and be as ubiquitous as e-mail."

Incorporating RSS into CRM

RSS feeds can be incorporated into customer relationship management software such as NetSuite to provide instant access to the latest news and updates about client companies. There is also PubSub, a Web service that filters through scores of RSS feeds to create new, custom channels based on keyword searches.

RSS also lets companies keep track of who subscribes to which corporate RSS feeds and, perhaps more importantly, lets companies watch which news items subscribers choose to explore in greater detail. "Gathering market intelligence is the primary reason for having RSS," says Carl Agers, vice president of client services and strategy at Decision Counsel, of San Ramon, Calif., a marketing consultancy. "You can build a profile on a subscriber to an RSS feed solely on an e-mail address and the pages they choose to view. Which feeds are they reading? Which words trigger what responses?"

RSS also can provide customer leads. A New York private equity firm, for instance, uses the technology to receive instant notification whenever certain forms are filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, including those that are required whenever a large number of shares are sold. "It's a pretty good bet that the seller is flush with cash," Berkowitz notes. "That would make them a good prospect to go after to invest in a private equity fund."