“Give them what they want”. For blogs that translates to “write content that people want to read”. Easier said than done, right? How do you know what “they” want, are you meant to be psychic? There are a few ways of working out what is popular right now:
- Digg, see what is hitting the front page
- Del.icio.us, popular links
- Technorati, see what the buzz is in blogs right now
- Flickr, you can see if there is a popular tag being used
- Wordtracker, see what gets searched most often in your niche
- Your top posts in metrics, write more of what gets hit most
What would happen though if you only posted about what was already popular? A pretty bland blog where everyone who reads it ends up sounding like a frog; “read it, read it, read it”. The only idea out of that list that is not based on cribbing other peoples posts is number 6, but if you keep writing the same old stuff people will soon become bored.
So you have to look outside of what is already popular. For sure use those services listed above and do those things, but the aim should be to uncover previously less known shiny hidden nuggets rather than strip-mining the top 10 most popular links. You can guarantee BoingBoing and hundreds of other blogs already got there first. Your readers are coming to you for something different, something unique and special to you.
Hmmm, how do you manage “unique“?
Many writers suggest you should write for yourself. You can not please everybody so you are better off writing to your own taste and hope that enough people think the same way that your content is well received. There is a lot to be said for this tactic and as an everyday rule of thumb I guess it mostly works. Every now and then though something will come along and cause you to question that line of thinking.
On my photography blog I feel pretty tuned-in to the camera-geek audience, I am after all a fully paid up lifetime member of the photo nerd club. Darren Rowse though showed perhaps I am not so tuned in after all. He posted an innocent little post about how to hold a camera. I didn’t link to it, in fact I nearly snorted my cornflakes across the room when I saw it thinking it was downright hilarious that he wrote it. What a fool I was, I see that little post generated what he describes as a traffic tsunami. What I took as insultingly basic worked out to be a massive success for his brand new blog, he touched on a topic people absolutely wanted to read and link to.
So if looking to what is already popular doesn’t work, nobody else was writing about how to hold a camera after all, and writing for yourself also doesn’t work, what is left?
Well I would say don’t dismiss keeping an ear to the ground for what is popular, it will inform your thinking and a small amount of linking to stuff people have already seen is fine providing you can put your own unique commentary or spin on the theme. Also I would say your own feelings and tastes are a good barometer for what is right or wrong on your blog. Your audience though is who you write for, you need to see things from their perspective.
There are two techniques for getting into your audiences heads; empathise or ask.
Asking is the obvious one. Simply approach readers individually, in a post, do a survey/questionnaire/poll, etc. The method is not as important as the results. Also approach people in your target audience who are not already readers. These will be in real life or in forums related to the niche. You have to remember though that what you ask and how you ask it are very important, do not ask questions that lead your interviewee to answer a certain way and do not presume you know the answer before asking it. Sadly also don’t expect the answers you get back to be entirely honest or accurate. Too many focus groups have jaded me to thinking people are very vulnerable to the herd instinct. Again your gut will have to be your guide.
Finally we are left with empathising. Empathy is in part reliant on all of the above. You are feeding your subconscious mind with as much information you possibly can for it to stew on and hopefully ferment up the perfect picture of your gestalt reader. For many blogs there will not be just one type of reader, you will have newbies, old hands, experts, trolls, hobbyists, pros, socialisers, just-the-facts … you need to cater for who you think are important and work out what motivates each one. Some will not be your audience, they will have just parachuted in from a search engine and will never be seen again, working out your loyal core is increasingly important.
Many people find it useful to create a pen portrait or “profiles” of their most important “typical” reader(s):
- Give your reader a name, for example Brenda Blogger, Randy Reader, Andy Amateur, Tammy Troll. Some times it is useful to give them demographic details such as gender and age. You may or may not want to give them opinions or political biases.
- Think about what attracted them to your blog
- Determine where they mostly come from
- Develop a list of tastes and items they would most like to see
- Are there services they use or would love?
- What do they also read, online or off
- … Etc
By building up this picture you can work out where you are serving your audience and where you are failing. You can also generate ideas for attracting more of them.
This sounds like hard work. You might be thinking “people seem to like my blog already, I don’t need to do this”. It is surprising how effective spending a little time trying to get into your audience heads can be. Look at how popular our firefox extension was, it blew us away as we thought it would be a nice little download but never as interesting as people found it. When you hit the spot it really pays off.
You have to remember you are not your audience, you only get really successful not when you entertain yourself but when you are interesting to your readers. The keys to this are locked in your audiences heads and you need to work to reveal them.
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