If you are in any way a part of a communications business there is probably no more important a discipline right now than audience development. PR, marketing or advertising companies are only as effective as the size of the audience they create. The same is true for a news, publishing or media enterprise. Many of the hottest companies of the past decade, services like Facebook or YouTube, were evaluated and valued by investors and buyers based their audience, the number of users they attracted, irrespective of things like profitability and margin.
For publishers of all types, audience development has become their lifeblood. Finding their audience online was a challenge for anyone who used to have, and may still have, a paid circulation. Many publishers initially resisted going online for fear it would cannabilize their print sales. It did. It was just a question of whether you were going to cannibalize your own print sales or whether you were going to let someone else do it. For these publishers it was a tough decision to allow open access in place of controlled and paid circulation and it was a decision that they only made after it became clear that traditional paid circulation wasn’t going to sustain them. You may remember how some news organizations tried to stop Google from listing their headlines in search results. In Europe in particular some were successful in getting their content off of Google. Then they found they lost half their readers.
Commercial communicators used to piggyback on media to find their audience. Digital publishing has been a mixed blessing for them. On the one hand they are no longer beholden to media editors who had created a kind of gated community, only publishing or broadcasting what they found fit for their audience. You now have the ability to bypass the gatekeeper and go straight to that audience. That is if you can find them and if you can produce the quality that will attract them. Probably a bit tougher than forking over cash for good placement.
Businesses of all types, not just communications, have seen the barriers fall in terms of getting their message out. Surely in some ways it is liberating to be able to self publish and to do it at what can be a relatively minor cost. It can be a Web site or a blog, it can be housed on someone else’s network, a Facebook or Tumblr. Video is unleashed from the control by television stations and film companies when it can be uploaded to YouTube and images can sit on a gallery on Pinterest or Instagram.
But that means lots and lots of content. I recently listened to a presentation by Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer of the Met, during which he commented “almost everyone will miss almost everything you do on social media.” You can probably safely expand that comment to what you do on your Web site or blog. And that is where audience development comes in, whether you are the head of that department for the New York Times, an ad agency account executive, a small business owner or a solitary blogger like myself.
There are three key parts to audience development. Social, search and, while this may come as a surprise to some, email.
The Web is full of posts offering advice on how to use social media. You can find 8 tips to do this and 10 ways to do that all over the place. (Usually one of those tips is to use a number in the headline.) There is plentiful advice on when is the best time to post, what are the best networks to use and how often you should publish. I’ll leave that kind of advice to the social media gurus of the world. But I would add one suggestion, especially if, like most of us, you are not at the same level as the Washington Post or Buzzfeed. That is, be an active participant in groups, communities of people who have common interests. They are available in one form or another on most social networks.
I can use my own blog as an example. The most popular posts I have ever written, in terms of number of views, are the posts about the city of Paterson where I was born. These are not my best work. The traffic numbers were driven by my having posted them on a few very active Facebook groups made up of people who were born or who lived in Paterson. I’ve written better stuff and posted it on my news feed, tagging it to be available to everyone, and not gotten anywhere near the response. Who is often more important than how many when you are building an audience.
While many publishers say that social has surpassed search as a driver of traffic, for others search remains preeminent, and that is particularly true if you aren’t a household name person or brand. I used to work for a press release distribution company. Even though I was in the business of publishing press releases online, I knew full well there weren’t many who were going to pick up their phone, or their laptop, and say “let’s read some press releases.” And yet there were many press releases that would be very interesting to specific audiences. Those connections were never going to be made if you expected the potential reader to browse a Web site with thousands of releases. Nor were they going to happen on Facebook. They only happened through search.
A pretty substantial consultative industry has been built up around search engine optimization. SEO is a bit of a moving target. It can also be a victim of its own success. If an SEO trick, an example being loading a post with keywords, is successful, it becomes more and more widely used and at the point that it makes a noticeable difference in search results, Google and the other search engines will tweak their algorithms until it is neutralized or maybe even penalized. There are, however, many sound tips you can learn from search experts, things like the maximum size for headlines and or how to tag images. You should also pay attention to what Google says about how it plans to distinguish good quality from crap. The search engine doesn’t always work in the way Google says it will, but they tend to keep trying until they get it right.
What you shouldn’t do is write for Google’s robots instead of your readers. While this post is about the tactics you can use to develop an audience, it is all predicated on having content that will appeal to the audience you want to reach. If you don’t have that, your audience development efforts are doomed to fail.
And finally I think one of the most important tools that can be used in audience development is email. Email continues to be the single most used Internet activity. And email is device agnostic. It is just as important and widely used on a cell phone as on a tablet or desktop or laptop.
If you want to know how to use email to drive traffic and build an audience you really don’t have to look any further than your own email preferences. And those preferences are likely to involve not sending too much and keeping it short. I probably read as much if not more news and information that I linked to from an email as I do from browsing, reading social networks or using search. Most of those links come as part of email newsletters that come either daily or weekly, but no more than that, and they include descriptive headlines for about five or six stories.
As detailed in my previous post the online audience has become self-selective. If you want to reach them, the starting point is content that entertains or educates. But just popping it online doesn’t mean it will be seen no matter how good it is. Much like the author who finds that he has to promote his own book, any company or person who is publishing information on the Web needs to be in the business of audience development if they want to find viewers.