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Part 3: Five basics for building an audience on the web

A hypothesis about influence on the web and the workplace

by Tom Johnson on Jan 25, 2022 •
categories: technical-writing

In the previous post, I explained how email fails as a communication channel in the workplace, and how solely relying on email-based content can cause you to miss out on my analytics and other common web techniques. In this post, I'll look at a few aspects related to content production on the web. Although these techniques all seem basic, hardly any of them are followed in the workplace.

Building an audience

One of the first steps toward running a successful website is to build an audience. There’s a common belief that the internet is so vast and wide, it doesn’t matter what you write about — the right audience will eventually find you and you’ll build a community around common interests.

Well, sometimes it’s hard for the right audience to locate the right content creator. The audience doesn’t magically materialize when you publish a post. You have to help this audience find you, and that connection requires content creators to follow several best practices: build an engaging website, share your content on social media, infuse your content with SEO, capture subscribers, and analyze your analytics. These principles sound basic, and they are, but they are the fundamental way that influence on the web works. Let’s look at each of these principles as well as patterns in the workplace differ.

Principle 1: Build an engaging website

The first step is usually to build a website. You need a home for your content – a place for search engines to bring visitors. To build a site, you need to be familiar with the web’s tools for online content creation, whether blogs, videos, podcasts (including feeds), newsletter tools, and more. Using tools like WordPress isn’t hard, but there are many aspects to managing a website that require web-savvy. If you have a static site generator, you might need to know some HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to create the kind of user experience you want.

Some content creators might use subsites within existing platforms (for example, YouTube channels or Instagram accounts, or even Medium for writers), but that still requires customization and branding. Having an engaging space communicates your content’s focus and makes it easy for users to subscribe (whether to RSS, a podcast feed, a newsletter, follow button, or other). Having a home on the web is key to growing an audience and establishing an online presence. If you don’t have a website, it becomes much more difficult to attract an audience.

Not having a dedicated online site is a major problem with the email approach I had been following (described in Part 2: Initial attempts and failures with workplace content). Having a website seems like one of the most foundational principles on the web for building anything. It gives you space to build your your information architecture, to be discovered, to bring visitors, and more.

Principle 2: Share content on social media

Another step toward visibility is to broadcast your content on the right channels. Sharing your content on Twitter, Linkedin, YouTube, Reddit, Slack, and other social circles (if appropriate) builds awareness for the content.

It’s somewhat uncomfortable to broadcast new posts on these social channels (and sometimes it’s inappropriate to do so, especially if it comes across as a one-way megaphone), but online influencers need to be unabashed about sharing their content. I share links to posts on Twitter and Linkedin (and videos on YouTube), as well as podcasts on iTunes and other channels. I also send posts to newsletter subscribers (currently 6,100 people!). I should probably share my content across more channels, but doing so feels a bit spammy.

In general, use the social forums that are appropriate for the type of content you create, and don’t be afraid to share your content with others. In the workplace, you don’t often have social media channels, but you do have many groups that you can simply hijack into your distribution. In this way, the workplace allows you to reach an instant audience that you don’t build from scratch. There’s an expectation that these channels will receive certain communications, and as long as your content aligns with that general focus, you have permission to broadcast it.

Even so, many tech writers prefer to stay in the shadows, to not share out what they’ve written or updated, to remain quiet. They often list the updates on a release notes page, but internally, not many people read release notes. In my experience, not many people are even aware of where tech writers publish documentation to external partners. If tech writers are introverts, the idea of sharing links to docs and posting other updates often fills writers with dread.

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Principle 3: Infuse content with SEO

SEO also plays another role, often underplayed, in helping the audience find your content. Ninety percent of the traffic on my site comes from organic SEO (meaning, not ads) from Google. To infuse your content with the right keywords, you need to understand the basics of SEO, which is sometimes treated as a dark-arts practice but is likely the most powerful way to attract people to your site.

When I look at my site analytics, it appears (bewilderingly so) that most users are first-time visitors, brought to my site by their searches on Google. When you create content online, you should be aware of keywords and phrases that people search for related to your site, build landing pages around those keywords, and leverage other trends you observe from analytics.

I admit I often disregard keywords, but I do look at analytics in depth at least yearly. In fact, my whole emphasis on API documentation was fueled in part by the surge in traffic (around API doc topics) that I observed through analytics. Paying attention to analytics can help steer your content creation efforts.

If you send newsletter content only through email, it can be difficult to gauge insights from site analytics. The basic idea of the web is that you bring people to a specific web page, and then you can analyze the popularity, time on page, click flows, demographics, and other details for the content. If all your content exists only in an email message, it’s much harder to gauge readership.

If you use a newsletter tool, you might be able to see how many people opened the email, but unless you’re tracking clicks on links that bring visitors to a web page, you don’t have any other analytics.

Further, newsletters often stuff all content into one body, making it difficult to separate out. In my blog’s newsletter (see the archive here), I have individual article summaries, each of which brings users to a distinct page. This allows me to see which posts are more popular.

Principle 4: Capture subscriber emails or signups

Another important practice is to capture subscribers through newsletter signups or other subscriptions. It sounds marketingesque, and it is, but newsletters also work. Just to acknowledge some risks in bombarding users with too many requests, here’s Andy Budd’s sarcastic tweet about websites in 2022:

Among other site prompts, it can be annoying to be presented with multiple pop-ups within the first 10 seconds of visiting a site. On my site, I don’t auto-launch a popup for newsletter signups (though I probably should, because I myself often sign up for newsletters when presented with these popups).

Regardless of how aggressive you are in encouraging newsletter signups, just make sure you offer a newsletter. I made a major mistake blogging for the first 10 years. I thought RSS was the way people would read blogs, and it initially was. Then Google Reader shut down, and RSS never fully recovered as a means of reading content. You need to capture your visitors’ email so that after they leave, you can still bring them back through future posts. (If you’re publishing on another platform, like YouTube, you probably want people to follow/subscribe instead. The principle is the same.)

When I share links to new posts on social media, I typically get about 25 clicks from sharing the links on Twitter and Linkedin. But when I send out a newsletter to 6,100+ technical writers with the links, I see 10x the number of clicks. By tracking links, I’ve quickly realized that newsletters are a powerful way to reach an audience and bring them back to your site.

In the workplace, newsletter signups are often in the form of email groups. Users join a group and then receive email notifications when new messages (e.g., newsletter emails) are posted to the group. Make the newsletter signup a prominent feature for those who are interested but aren’t already included in the auto-subscribed groups.

One final tip for successful online engagement is to include link trackers and page analytics. When you send out links to new content, include link trackers to see how many people are clicking. I use Rebrandly, but you could use many other services (for example, Bitly) that will give you feedback about how many people are clicking the links to the content. It’s easy to see what topics are interesting to people based on these clicks.

Additionally, as mentioned previously, your site should have analytics tracking, such as Google Analytics, to give you more details about popular pages on your site, incoming landing pages, demographics, and more. Analytics gives you unspoken feedback about your content. You can see how popular content is by merely looking at how many people clicked a link or visited a page. Without that feedback, you’re often writing in the dark.

Have patience, but also iterate

Even by following these basic best practices, many posts, videos, or podcasts probably never reach the audience who would actually like to consume the content. It takes time for the right content creators and audience to find each other. Literally, it can take years to build up your audience. In the meantime, if each new post seems to get zero comments, or no clicks or reads, etc., content creators might struggle to feel that their efforts are worth it. This is one reason why content creators need to find value in the activity itself, independent of any readers or influence. Recognize early on that influence/visibility/expertise on the web isn’t an overnight phenomenon (at least not in my experience). It’s going to take a while.

My next steps

After revisiting these web fundamentals, I resolved to pivot my approach, to rearchitect the information from my email-only newsletter to an internal site that incorporates all the web techniques I described above. There was just one thing I couldn’t quite figure out: the content. If people fundamentally weren’t interested in documentation topics, much less meta documentation discussions, and this was my only knowledge and experience, how could I ever create content that would have any reach, even in the right format?

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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