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Write for your audience, not algorithms and advertisers

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Over the years, we’ve been repeatedly told to “write for your audience”, but have we stopped to think about what this really means? My take is to ask yourself as a reader: when you read a good article, do you actually care how many page views it has generated? When you finish a good book, does it matter to you how many other people have read it?

I would think that as readers, we really don’t care. If we love the article, book, video, or other piece of content and want other people to appreciate it, then we would share it and recommend it to them. But whether or not they actually read it wouldn’t affect our enjoyment. In fact, even if you’re the only one in the world who has read that story, you wouldn’t care because you’re judging the quality of the content and your own enjoyment, not the number of readers. If you think about it, page views only matter to algorithms and advertisers because it’s one of their metrics, and you as the writer will only care if instead of writing for your audience, you are more concerned with monetizing your content.

Always write for your audience

"Write for your audience", they say, but have we stopped to think about what this really means? Image credit: Gratisography
Image credit: Gratisography

Exactly a week ago today, I launched my personal blog Joey Alarilla Online — my umpteenth attempt to start blogging again. I decided to start from scratch instead of again reviving my old blog, and declared that I want to write like it’s 1999. When we wrote for our audience. Not for algorithms and advertisers.

But the thing is that’s exactly what I’ve been doing with Digital Life Asia.

I launched this site because I believe in technology for good. I’m not here to bring you the news, but to be a passionate advocate of the Asian revolution in technology, science, gaming, geek culture, and entertainment. So creating content is my priority. Not monetizing content.

When you write for your audience, you don’t have to compromise. You’re not beholden to any advertiser. You don’t feel obliged to publish press releases. You don’t feel compelled to attend press briefings.

When you write for your audience, you write for people. You don’t care about search engine optimization. You’re not worried about inserting keywords in your articles. You don’t obsess over page views, bounce rates, and other metrics.

Old school can be cool

Now, I realize this might sound too idealistic, and even counterintuitive in this digital age when we’re supposed to monitor our online publications with Google Analytics and tweak our content accordingly depending on what works and what doesn’t.

And how we’re supposed to think of what would make our content engaging and easy to share so that there’s a chance it will go viral on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks.

And how we’re supposed to optimize our content for the algorithms of Google and Facebook and even use paid media to boost their performance, so that we can generate more traffic and engagement to attract advertisers and keep them happy.

I know, it’s ironic because I’ve spent a good part of my career as a digital marketer and social media manager. And, yes, it’s true that content creation should be both art and science. But it’s also true that nowadays, the science is running too rampant and content is being created and consumed based on the metrics of those who are clueless about content.

Why should you, as the content creator, let algorithms tell you what’s good content? Algorithms don’t even distinguish between real and fake news, and in fact are biased toward spreading the latter, so how can these tech companies and tech bros even judge what makes content great?

Why should you, as the content creator, let advertisers tell you what’s good content? Advertisers just want stories that promote their products, boost their brands, and put their companies in a good light.

No more freeloaders

That’s why I don’t believe in ad-supported content. News and magazine sites really should stop saying “paywall” and call it what it is: subscription.

And readers should stop being freeloaders. It costs a lot to create quality content, so we should be willing to pay for a subscription. It’s no different from subscribing to Netflix or Disney+. Why are we willing to pay for entertainment, and not for journalism?

We used to buy print newspapers and magazines. It’s not like this is something alien. The only problem is that news sites decided from the start to give away their online content for free.

Sometimes I feel guilty for playing a role in this as one of the pioneers who spun off INQUIRER.net from the print newspaper, and as an ex-Yahoo, because Yahoo! aggregated content that news companies were giving away like crazy. But that’s their business decision.

I guess they refused to believe print, and to a lesser extent broadcast, would start dying, and wouldn’t be able to subsidize their ad-supported model for online content.

Here’s the thing: an ad-supported model just makes the quality of journalism suffer. Plus news companies can’t compete with Google and Facebook. Heck, news companies even advertise on them to try to increase their traffic and build an audience.

Say no to copy and paste

Of course, if you expect readers to pay for your content, then you’d better make sure you create quality content.

That’s why I really hate the copy-and-paste online culture. CTTO (credit to the owner) is one of my pet peeves.

That’s why I have always criticized the practice of copying and pasting press releases, which apparently many journalists and bloggers nowadays are happy to do.

In fact, I would say that this copying and pasting mentality comes from writing for algorithms and advertisers. From just being concerned with generating page views and revenue. As long as the article generates page views, that satisfies their need to cater to algorithms. And as long as the article is favorable to the brands, that satisfies their need to cater to advertisers.

So much for respecting your audience. And so much for respecting the quality of your work and your credibility as a writer.

The future of content

I know, it will be a long, uphill climb to get readers to pay for content.

Case in point: I was a proud founding member of The Correspondent, which published member-funded, unbreaking journalism. Precisely because they didn’t believe in ad-supported journalism. Unfortunately, the experiment didn’t work and they ceased publishing on Jan. 1 this year. I was willing to pay, but unfortunately not enough readers were.

More recently, newspaper publisher Singapore Press Holdings made the decision to transfer its media business into a not-for-profit entity, in the face of falling advertising revenues. Which should spur more publishers to find new business models, or go not-for-profit, too.

I honestly don’t know what the answer is for publishers, but I do know from personal experience that I’m happily supporting content creators directly through Patreon, so that’s one platform you might consider if you create quality content and want to write for your audience.

And while I haven’t explored it yet, Substack is simultaneously being hailed and blasted for changing the media business by providing a platform for journalists to earn without having to be part of a publication.

I don’t know what the future holds. But I know we can do better.

Because we have to.

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