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Building an audience isn’t easy, especially if you don’t have a big budget for promotion. But here are six things you can do for free (or at least for a modest investment in time). These tips are designed to attract people who are likely to care, who are likely to visit again and who are likely to recommend your site to their like-minded friends.
- Publish frequently and consistently – I cannot count the number of journalism students who come to me complaining that they have blogged for two weeks – three amazing and heartfelt posts – but they still don’t have any comments. Not only does building an audience take time, but it requires maintaining a steady flow of quality content to make yours the ‘go-to’ site for your niche. The good news if you are using a content management system like WordPress is that you can schedule your stories to publish automatically. To ensure a steady flow, consider breaking up an article into two or three stories. Three shorter stories over three days will do you much more good than one long story on one day. Depending on your audience, consider posting a picture with a short copy block today instead of waiting to do a longer story later – one that risks never getting done.
- Be strategic with tagging – I go back to the days in the Nineties when you found my sites by clicking on “B” in Yahoo’s directory, so thank heaven for tagging. But all too often, we treat tags as an afterthought, as the last item on the checklist before taking a break or crashing for the night. One tip is to start thinking of tags while you are planning the story. Put your proposed keywords at the top of your draft as a mini-outline and revise the list when you are finally ready to post. Remember to put yourself in the position of your ideal visitor. What search terms would that person use? (Also, if you come up with a great tag that isn’t in your story, add it somewhere in your copy since most search engines penalize you for using tags that don’t correlate to your content.) And no more than three words per tag. And don’t cheat. Gore Vidal published a book in 1968 called Sex, Money & Death, knowing that these three words would attract attention on the bookstore shelf. But you should never promise one thing and deliver another, or your visitors will never come back again – and they may say bad things about you on social media as well.
- Add an image, slideshow, video or graphic – Research shows stories with images and other kinds of mulimedia typically enjoy higher readership and rates of sharing. The Content Marking Institute shared Skyword’s analysis that this is especially true for news stories. Images and other visual storytelling devices engage people. Usability guru Jakob Neilsen’s research showed that visitors read on average only 28% of your text, even less with longer articles. Even if they don’t watch your video, its presence adds credibility, and it helps to break up the page.
- Make stories easy to share – On the tech side, making stories easy to share on Twitter and Facebook matters as much or more than almost anything else you can do. Add big buttons for social media so visitors can easily share the article with their friends, many of whom probably share the same interests. Be directive. Say, “please share this with your friends if you agree – or if you don’t.” Or you can adapt the strategy that National Lampoon magazine used to stand out on the newsstand.
- Encourage conversation on your site – I often compare the number of comments under the link to one of my stories on Facebook with the actual clicks to the story that come from that source. As we all suspect, many people are willing to weigh in with an opinion without ever reading the article. Especially if clicks matter to your bottom line, experiment with strategies to encourage readers to follow that link. Embed a poll in your story and ask your social media followers to weigh in. Offer a t-shirt to the person who leaves the best comment on your site. Make commenting easy by keeping hoops to do so to a minimum.
- Think scannable – Writers want people to savor every word that they write. But don’t let your ego get in the way of serving your readers. If they get all the information they want from your headline and three bullet points, you have done your job and done it well. Make it easy for them to find the gist of the story. Neilsen’s eyetracker research shows that people scan your web pages with an “F” pattern. (Magazine readers, in contrast, tend toward the “lazy S,” an “S” lying on its side.) So think of headlines, bullets, blockquotes and embeds as ways to summarize and communicate your main points. We read from left to right, so you can stack the deck by putting your most informative items on the left side of the page. Using devices to break up the copy helps keep people scrolling. Once a visitor hits a wall of gray pixels, he or she is much more likely to click away.
- Engage your audience through social media – Note that this does not say “promote your stories through social media.” If you only tweet to say “please read my latest article,” you are wasting one of the best tools you have to build your audience. The time to start engaging your readers is while you are developing your story. Use tweets or postings to ask your followers and friends to suggest possible sources. Ask them for their angles, ideas and insights. Keep them informed about your progress and seek help in overcoming any obstacles you encounter. By the time you tweet that the story is posted, your audience should be waiting for the link. And rather than just say “it’s up,” ask a question or ask for their opinion about the piece. Remember to post or tweet regularly that you are eager for their story ideas, and make sure to thank them, formally and informally, when they help. Sending a frequent retweeter a t-shirt or mug with the name of your publication can earn you a lifelong friend.