Last Friday I made a post making light of a frustrating experience my girlfriend had on the Web. After it went live, I asked her to read it, to make sure I didn’t misquote her. (Why did I wait until after it went live, you ask? Well, frankly, I’m not a very good boyfriend.)
She read the post and enjoyed it, because I am a superb wordsmith. She just had one question.
“So, wait,” she said. “What’s SEO, again?”
I sighed heavily and explained. You really can’t fault her for not knowing; she’s an actress-slash-vocalist-slash-production assistant, so knowing all the petty little details about my work, such as what I do for a living, isn’t really something she should have to deal with.
But it did make me think a lot about audiences, online communities, and niche blogging. One of the first rules of writing, of course, is determining who your audience is, and writing directly to them. Last week Steven Snell made a great post about attracting first-time visitors to your blog; once you get those new visitors, though, you’ve got to keep them. That’s not always easy to do when you’ve got a niche blog, or any site that focuses on a very specific topic.
Cinematical, for instance, is a movie blog, featuring reviews and news on films in production. Its writers assume a certain level of knowledge and experience on the part of their audience; they assume their readers know about the current writers’ strike, and have seen more classic and cult films than most folks. But Cinematical’s writers do a great job of writing posts that appeal to readers at all levels of interest an experience — which is no easy task when you’re writing to a crowd of movie geeks, who tend to be insular and not terribly warm to outsiders. (Don’t believe me? Try reading the talkback forums on Ain’t It Cool News. Better yet, go there and say you’ve never seen “Star Wars,” and watch what happens.)
Other niche sites aren’t so good. I always enjoy learning new things, so often my Internet travels take me to new and strange places on the web — many of which are niche sites. And sometimes I get so overwhelmed with jargon, back-references and in-jokes that I want to leave the site and never come back. Often I do just that.
“But Kevin!” You’re saying, possibly with the caps lock key on. “Niche blogs are supposed to be audience-specific! How am I ever supposed to get anything done on my niche blog if I have to keep slowing down for the new people? Huh?”
It’s always important to make your work as accessible as possible, and sometimes that means taking a few extra minutes to make sure your post bears some appeal to first-time visitors. But of course you don’t want to risk turning every post into a basics tutorial, right? Fortunately there are a few easy (and fun, if you enjoy writing) ways to make a niche site more readable to people who are New At This.
Post a Glossary. If your niche site is heavy on jargon, keep a running tab of terms it might be useful for a novice to understand. When you get time, post an extensive glossary of relevant terms, and link to it prominently on the front page. Glossaries are never quite complete, so keep updating it.
Make a “Topic 101″ Post Every So Often. I read a lot of political blogs, many of which evolve cults of personality around the main blogger, or are unfriendly to dissenting voices, or have a pretty close, vocal community of people — or sometimes all three, which can result in a perfect storm of annoyance for the new visitor. One term I kept reading on a lot of the feminist blogs I frequent was “MRA,” which I could never figure out… until I read this wonderfully thorough post on Shakesville (Warning: Politics You May Not Agree With). I began reading Shakesville regularly as a direct result of this post.
Explain Your In-Jokes. I’m a big fan of MetaFilter (which, by the way, has a one of the best FAQ lists I’ve ever seen), but the community can sometimes be a bit overwhelming in its use of private jokes and references. So there’s a great list of in-joke explanations on the MeFi wiki. Of course, MeFi has its own wiki, maintained by its thousands of users, which is a resource you might not have. But if you have a great community, don’t be afraid to expand it by giving new users a way to become a part of the club.
Keep Your Prose Lively and Readable. The absolute best way to make people comfortable with your content is to make it enjoyable to read. The best writing will make new visitors want to come back even if they don’t totally understand what’s going on — or better yet, do some research on their own so they can get the most enjoyment out of your writing. The best way to do this is practice, practice, practice — do lots of reading and writing until you hit that winning style.
Case in point: After I explained SEO to my girlfriend, she silently nodded — maybe she said “uh huh” or something similar — and left the room, heading for the living room to watch Back to the Future Part II on cable, confident that, armed with the knowledge I had just imparted to her, she could enjoy reading marketing blogs even more than she does now.
That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.
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