Know thy audience.
Okay, so that’s actually important in any kind of writing. But it’s especially important when you’re writing online. It’s a different medium—one that is hyper-targeted. So you’ve got to know who you are talking to. What kind of person do you want to read your blog? What kind of person will be interacting with your organization’s Facebook page, and what kind of language will they respond to? Do you want to speak to your online readers as a friend they trust, a purveyor of giveaways, a source of news?
Apart from whatever literary merit you attach to your writing, you should definitely have answers to these kinds of questions.
So to help you navigate these waters, and pin down some answers, here are four general rules for keeping your audience in mind, whether writing online or on paper.
- Know who is most likely to use a media platform. For example, what motivates someone to visit Twitter instead of Facebook? Although there is no one typical user (check out these categories of Twitter users), we can assume that most people turn to Twitter for quick punches of information, # trends, and @ connections. Facebook caters a bit more to the visually-inclined, offering more space, images alongside text, and especially with the introduction of Timeline (not everyone’s thrilled), a visual representation of a brand’s history and comments. And of course, there’s that ubiquitous like button. So take advantage of these distinctions and play to the features that bring users to different media platforms.
- Keep in mind attention span. Online readers like to scan, to be pointed to the important information, so bullet points, images, and bold words are key. Also, let’s think about how long a reader will be willing to stick with your words given the form of media you’re working with: What expectations do they carry about time commitment? On Twitter, you might earn a couple seconds per tweet (140 characters!), a blog reader might be willing to spend a bit more time, and when sitting down with a novel, readers know they’ll have to invest a few hours.
- Think about what kind of language your audience will respond to. Will they connect with a voice that’s friendly and personable, snarky and unfiltered, fun and energetic, professional and distanced, or a voice that offers great advice and steers them to interesting links. Just like a novel or an essay, voice can draw in a reader immediately and commit them to reading 140 characters or 1,000 words … If they like the person they’re spending time with.
- Social media is all about cultivating connections. And the glory of writing online, is that we have the opportunity to converse actively, to develop more intimate (hubba hubba) relationships, and make those who interact with us online feel important and recognized. So post frequently and reply to comments! Depending on the image you want to project, and the kind of relationships you want to build, reach out to those who respond to your words online and try to get to know them better. For that matter, reach out and build your network with anyone who is or might be interested in what you have to say! Because the bottom line is that relationships build trust, and establish a person-to-person connection. Emotional connection can also be an important factor. Take for example the Kony 2012 video that went viral: According to social media researcer Danah Boyd, the makers promoted the video on Twitter by creating “narratives that can be boiled down to 140 characters while still engaging people emotionally.” Regardless of what you think of the video itself, their calls to action—their narratives—were brief and powerful
Incidentally, there are authors who have taken their books online and made them more interactive and of-the-moment too. Check out the website for Vanishing Point by Ander Monson.