How do I get people to come to my website?

A reader wrote to me this week asking a question I’ve heard from many journalists trying to make the switch from a print newsroom to independent online publishing.

How do I get readers to come to my website?

Great question. So let’s answer it.

First, let’s be clear that the key to gaining and retaining an audience in any medium is to provide outstanding content. Tell an engaging story, deliver an illuminating anecdote, put up a compelling photo or a gripping video — those are things that bring readers to a website.

Since most of the readers of this website are journalists by trade and training, I’m not use this column to write about doing those things. You already know. And if you need some pointers on how to do them better, well, we have unlimited “newshole” to write about that later….

No, today I’m going to write about the trickier question for most journalists: How do you get folks to notice your great work?

In the newsroom, you’ve got a promotions staff, a circulation department and years of established market share doing that for you. On your own… you don’t. And even if you’re working for a newspaper website, those offline resources often don’t help you attract much online readership. So how do you do it?

Ultimately, this boils down to a question familiar to any adolescent: How can I be more popular?

Answering that question can be tough for journalists, given that so many of us likely spent our high school lunchtimes doing homework in a favorite English teacher’s empty classroom, instead of holding court in the cafeteria with the rest of the Heathers. (Apologies for the GenX pop culture reference….)

But here goes… more people will notice you in that crowded cafeteria than in that empty classroom. So you’ve got to start by getting out and going where the people are.

Starting a Blogspot blog is easy. But no one’s going to find it. You need to begin your online publish career by socializing in established online communities related to your “beat.” Writing about politics? Keep a diary at DailyKos, blog at RedState, submit to Huffington Post, or hang out in the TPM Cafe.

No matter what you cover, from Buddhism to busking, there is an online community discussing that issue. Go there and contribute.

Author Julie Powell won a James Beard Award for “Julie and Julia,” a personal memoir that grew from her blog about cooking recipes from Julia Child’s
“Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I.” When I met her at a Beard Foundation panel we both were on in New York two years ago, she told me that she chose to publish her blog on Salon’s blogging pages, instead of through Blogger, because she wanted to connect with the existing blogging community that Salon already had established.

Those readers on Salon helped get her initial blog noticed, ultimately leading to a book contract and a movie deal. Today’s she’s got a blog on Blogspot, but starting her blog within an established community, rather than on its own virtual island, helped improve the odds of her story being found.

Okay, so you’ve found a relevant community and you are writing there. Now what?

Do not fall into the trap of trying to sound like everyone else on the site. Remember, your goal here is to stand out, so much that people will want to follow you back to your own website. To do that, you should write in a comfortable, conversational style that will blend with the other content in the community, but that reflects the solid reporting and engaging voice that you, as an experienced journalist, can bring to a piece.

Read what others have to say and listen to them as potential sources. Start humbly, adding only your own original reporting and analysis. Then, as the community allows you, step up to a leadership role. Compliment the great posts, follow-up on the interesting and do what you can to keep conversations moving.

If you are writing a blog on the community site, start using interactive tools to engage readers with your content. Use the comments tool by asking questions of your readers and inviting them to use the comments section to respond. Then do the same, yourself. Respond to your readers’ responses, answering their questions and continuing conversations.

No other step you take will better deliver the message that you are real, engaging human being, one worth revisiting and spending time with, than this one.

If you are not blogging, but just commenting on that other community, eventually you will want to start your own blog or website elsewhere and use your comments on the community site (judiciously) to point readers to it. When a community conversation relates to something you’ve written about on your blog, you can respond with something along the lines of “as I wrote on my blog this morning…” (with the underlined words linked to the blog entry). Don’t beat people over the head with it; just add a relevant link every few days.

Beyond comments, try using polls and surveys to tempt readers into clicking on your posts. Consider contests and charity drives as well. Pay attention to those house ads in the newspaper and steal whatever ideas you think you can make work to draw attention to your site.

Of course, if something doesn’t feel comfortable to you, don’t do it. A gimmick should never offend your readers and potential readers. But recognize that newspapers have been using various gimmicks to draw readers for years. It’s no sin to do the same for your site.

Finally, find a way to remind people whenever you post. An RSS feed is a must, as is an opt-in e-mail newsletter that you can use to end updates to your most interested readers.

You start, however, by getting out of the house and engaging potential readers where they are online, then showing enough leadership that they will want to follow you back to your place.

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