Do You Really Know What Your Readers Want?

    what your readers want - woman reading

    As bloggers, we make all kinds of choices — how many columns should our blog be, what should I write about, how can I make money?

    These choices and all the other choices we have to make can be tough, but it gets easier if we ask ourselves this question: Do you really know what your readers want?

    Too often I see bloggers filling their blog with promotional stuff designed to help out blogger friends or make money. Ads are placed right at the beginning of a post, making it hard to read the post, just to make more money. Now, I’m not knocking those bloggers, but at the same time I think they are putting other considerations before their readers, and I think in the long run that will lose you readers.

    Why It’s Important to Put Readers First

    Let’s talk first about what the other considerations are, besides what your readers want. Here are a few:

    • Money. If you put ads all over the place, with flashing images and video and audio, maybe pop-up ads as well, and all the ads in prime territory (meaning the spots that readers look at first on a page), the theory is that you’re going to make more money. Unfortunatley, such ads can be annoying to readers, and one emotion you don’t want your blog to evoke is annoyance. If your blog is annoying, you won’t keep many readers for too long. What about successful blogs that do this? There are plenty of examples. I would argue that these blogs are successful in spite of these ads. They would probably have kept many more readers without them.
    • Traffic. You can (sometimes) draw a lot of traffic with flashy headlines and pictures, without bothering to write great content to match. That’s fine if you just want readers to go to your site once and never come back. But if you want them to stay, and to subscribe and keep coming back, you have to really deliver on your promises.
    • Other bloggers. Sure, it’s nice to link to other bloggers, and help them out by promoting their best content and even ebooks and other things like that. I’m a fan of staying connected with other bloggers and linking to them when relevant. But if you do so just for the sake of doing so, without thinking about whether your readers really want to read about another product being sold by another blogger, you’re making a mistake. Your readers come to your blog for specific reasons, to read about certain topics and to get useful or interesting reads. If you give them stuff they don’t want too often, they will stop coming back.
    • Your ego. It’s good to share some of yourself with your readers — it helps them connect with you, to see why you’re an authority on a topic, to learn about the personality of the blogger they’re reading. But there’s a difference between sharing yourself and just flat-out promoting yourself, and if you cross the line too often you’ll turn off your readers. I’ve crossed this line a couple times myself and when I find readers reacting a certain way to what I’ve written, I ask myself if my ego got in the way.

    There are other considerations, but the most important one is the reader. Why? Because that’s the person who matters most, for most bloggers. OK, maybe you’re a blogger who doesn’t care if anyone reads his stuff. If that’s you, then go ahead and screw the reader.

    But if you’re like me, and you actually want people to read and enjoy your writing, and want them to find it useful or at least worth their while, then you have to care about what your readers want. You have to picture the reader in your mind as you make your decisions, and ask yourself, “What would my readers want?”

    If you do that, they’ll keep coming back.

    How to Put Your Readers First, Just About Every Time

    The process of putting the reader first start off when you first create your blog, and continues on from there, each and every day:

    • Blog topic and brand: What are you going to blog about? What are you going to call your blog? How will you brand the blog? The best way to answer these questions is to ask yourself, “Which readers am I aiming for?” Who do you want to read your blog? Is it a 20-year-old tech-savvy college student? A 60-year-old technophobe who loves books? A 35-year-old mother who wants to get into shape? What topics is this ideal reader interested in? What appeals to this reader? Answer these questions and you’ve gone a long way toward figuring out what you want your blog to be about.
    • Blog design: Too many blogs aim their design at making money. They put ads in the most annoying spots because it’s been found that’s where readers are most likely to click on the ads. Well, that’s also where readers are most likely to get annoyed by ads. Put your readers first when it comes to design: readers usually enjoy a clean, uncluttered look with easy-to-read text and not too many ads. Colors should be pleasing, not too loud or hard on the eyes.
    • Post topics: Every single post should be written with the reader’s interest in mind. What problems does your reader have that you can solve? What information does the reader want? How can you best help your readers? Often a blogger will write about unrelated topics without thinking about the reader. A blogger might write about things just to make money (like paid reviews) or to promote something he’s interested in. Those don’t help the readers.
    • Blogging memes: A related example is the blogging meme — something I never care about as a reader that exists just to promote someone’s blog or someone’s ego. A blogging meme is usually a question or topic where a blogger will “tag” other bloggers and they have to answer the question and tag even more bloggers, and so on. As a reader, very rarely will these memes be of interest to me, and they can actually be annoying if a blogger participates in them too much, and if you see them on all the blogs you read.
    • Ads: As mentioned above, it’s not a good idea to annoy your readers with your ads, even if that’s the best way to make money. Annoying your readers is one of the worst things you can do — it’ll hamper your growth and lose you readers and eventually mean lower ad revenues in the long term. Avoid placing your ads right at the top of the post (a common practice that is annoying even if it works). Don’t do in-text ads (ads that are links within a post) — they make reading a post annoying and cause the reader not to trust your links. There also shouldn’t be any pop-up ads or ads that flash annoyingly.
    • Promotional stuff: Often a blogger will be a part of a blog network or ad network or some other type of group thing. And he’ll do posts promoting the network that have no real value to the reader. That fills a blog with noise that will eventually cause a reader to realize that it’s too much work reading through your promotional posts to find the nuggets of value. He’ll unsubscribe.

    There are many other ways you can use this question — What Would the Reader Want — to improve your blog and grow your readership. I’ve only covered a few, but I’m sure you can think of others. What questions/suggestions do you have regarding putting a reader first? Share in the comments!

    About the author

      Leo Babauta

      Leo Babauta is the blogger behind the superblog, Zen Habits, which is about finding simplicity in the daily chaos of life.

    • @Jan: Thank you! You’ve just verbalized what has been on my mind for a while. I try so hard to keep my posts within my niche. It is hard to balance that with the desires of my community to tag me, enter contests that involve putting a post up or otherwise ask me to post off topic.

      I’m not sure how to handle this predicament.

      George

    • jan says:

      I find memes dreadful and much too self-absorbed for comfort. The other thing is that many bloggers hold contests for bloggers. How about other readers who don’t own a blog? I find it also strange that some blog writers tend to veer away from the focus of their blog and go on and on about SEO and how they tweak their pages to drive traffic to their sites. Very helpful it might have been if their focus is into meta blogging. Most of them are not. Ordinary readers must be thinking bloggers are a strange lot.

    • Really learnfull for a starting blogger!

    • it’s interesting that you mention the “memes.” I’ve been noticing these a lot over the past few weeks and couldn’t figure out why they were on all of these posts. I found myself just ignoring them and moving on to the next spot so I agree, they can turn readers off.

    • Wesley says:

      Great post.

      I agree with your basic premise, but these thoughts always lead me to wonder who Burkowski or Jack thought about when they were writing. Often I think of it as writing to the universe. Speak the truth and they will come.

      Which makes it sound a lot more pompous then I intent.

    • I think it comes down to writing because you love it and not because you want to become rich or famous. That’s why I started my blog and it’s the reason I keep my site so simple. Ultimately, that makes things so much more rewarding for the readers and me!

    • Good discussion here.

      I find myself trying to walk that fine balance that both Leo and Mary are talking about.

      I agree with Leo when he says:

      “When we share posts with our readers, it should be to communicate and connect, not just to satisfy our need to write something….communication is about both the writer and the reader — if it’s only about the writer, there’s no connection and writing becomes an act of diary, not communication.”

      I get what Mary say, though as well, when she says:

      “our readers aren’t a homogeneous mass. So, do we tailor our writing to the majority? Or do we go with what we as writers – and some of our readers – are passionate about?”

      I’d say the key is finding things to write about that both the writer and the readers are passionate about. If I’m trying to please the readers and get lots of comments, I can end up writing blandly about something that is popular but doesn’t interest me.

      If I write about whatever I want, but isn’t of interest to many readers, then it’s kind of pointless.

      There’s a wise, fine balance here–I think you should write about what truly drives you, and do so passionately; just make sure that it’s also a subject that people will actually want to read about.

    • Hi Leo!
      You write: “If you don’t care about what they think about something, why are you sharing it with them? Why not write it for yourself, privately?”

      That’s a valid point. Maybe it applies in particular to rants or posts about what I had for breakfast yesterday, or about what my cat dragged home at night.

      The point I was making is different. Personally, I only write articles when I’m interested in a question and want to know what others think about it. In that sense I’m always writing for my readers. But– who are they exactly?

      Here’s an example. A short while ago I wrote an article about our human capacity for both good and evil: Hero or Villain: What are YOU Capable of Being? It’s a question I’m intensely interested in and I wanted to see what others think about it. At the end of the article I promised a follow-on post that drills down and really takes a close look how the mind makes the decision for good or evil in each moment – and how we can make aware and wholesome choices of our thoughts and actions. (as you can see – I’m already getting carried away by the theme 🙂

      Anyhow, my article got some thoughtful responses, but I could sense that the majority of my readers wasn’t particularly interested. Then, a few days ago I got an email from a reader saying: “I look forward especially to more of your thinking about the roots of good and evil and working with them in the present moment”. So, yes – I did write what some of my readers wanted, but now what all of them wanted.

      My point is that our readers aren’t a homogeneous mass. So, do we tailor our writing to the majority? Or do we go with what we as writers – and some of our readers – are passionate about?

    • It’s gotta be a balance between satisfying your readers and being true to yourself. If you focus solely on writing for your audience, you could lose your passion….and that’s worse than annoying your readers.

      I agree that you shouldn’t build “friendships” with other bloggers simply to promote your own blog…you should promote what you believe in.

      I just posted an article for my Quips & Tips for Healthy Women blog – it was a round up of 10 women who turned their hobbies into full-time careers. I included links to each of their websites, and was SO happy to see readers clicking over! I love the idea of using my blog to promote other people, especially people following their passions.

    • Great points, and ideas that I had to realize with struggle. I started my blog nearly a year ago, with some haphazard goals and ideas of what would be good for me and the reader. I got some great response, but burned myself out. With a recent redesign and refocus, I thought very clearly about what blogs I like, what blogs serve me well, and what those blogs do that speak to me. Thinking like that allowed me to bypass my ego and get to what would be cool for my audience.

      Thanks Leo!

    • Vik Dulat says:

      Great article Leo. I will keep this in mind when I am writing my blog posts.

      Thanks

    • Leo says:

      @Mary Jaksch: You bring up some good points, but I’m not sure I completely agree.

      First, to clarify, I was never talking about whether something will do well in the social media. All that matters is that it is useful or interesting to your readers.

      Second, while I definitely agree that you should be true to yourself when you write, if you write a post only with your interests in mind and not your readers, you are doing them a disservice. If you don’t care about what they think about something, why are you sharing it with them? Why not write it for yourself, privately?

      When we share posts with our readers, it should be to communicate and connect, not just to satisfy our need to write something. And we cannot connect with others if we don’t think of them as we write. We must communicate something within ourselves, but do so with the idea of connecting with something within our readers. In this light, communication is about both the writer and the reader — if it’s only about the writer, there’s no connection and writing becomes an act of diary, not communication.

      So while we should definitely be true to ourselves, we must always still keep our readers in mind. Always.

    • Leo,

      This is a timely post for me as I am currently redesigning my blog and want to get points like the above ad placement tips right. I don’t want to alienate the readers, and content truly is king. I like Yaro Starak’s simple explanation of Pillar articles, I think if you get such posts right you will have solid content which is of great value to your readers and will build up a solid reference library on your blog.

      Cheers,

      Chris

    • I enjoyed this post. I think your recommendations are solid.

      I would say, maybe it’s a good idea to vary the post subject. In other words, even if you have a niche – don’t post about the same specific subject too many days in a row as that can get stale.

    • I think too many folks are focused on What Will My Readers Buy.

      Sure, I’d love folks that come to my website to click on the ads. I’m trying my best to NOT be a non-profit corporation.

      With that said, the foremost thing in my mind when I write a post is: Will this make sense to the readers, and will it create value. I really do believe that slow and steady wins the race, and if I stick to this basic reader principle, everything else will fall into line.

      Cheers

      George

    • Most of me agrees with your sentiments, Leo. But a very small bit of me seems to chirp up and disagree with WWRW.

      Where I fully agree is when it comes to treating one’s readers well. In addition to what you’ve outlined, I think this also means that we need to respond in a courteous and friendly manner to comments and to reader emails.

      My hesitation is about the content. Should we really always create a piece with the readers in mind? You see, sometimes I just want to write about what I want to write about! Even if I know that it’s not going to be a hit with social media, and maybe not all my readers will be interested.

      Maybe the small voice of my dissent is about being true not only to my readers, but also to myself.

    • Leo Babauta says:

      Thanks, guys, for the input … I’m glad you found this post useful! I think as bloggers we often forget about this point because we have so many competing interests, so it’s good to have a reminder now and then.

      Also, I wanted to point out that this advice applies to all writers, not just bloggers. Whether you’re writing a piece of fiction, a non-fiction book, a newspaper or magazine article, it’s important to keep the reader in mind at all times.

    • Thoughtful ethos in this post, Leo.

      Well worth a second read. I’m bookmarking it for a more intense read and also for future reference to keep myself in check.

    • Eric Hamm says:

      I do agree that it is our writing and the content we share that will ultimately make your visitors stick around for round two, three, four and so on.

      I liked how you split the lists. It helped drive your point home that much more. Well done on another solid post, Leo. Eric.

    • Jim Bessey says:

      Leo, thank you so much for an essential dose of reality.

      As I read your article I asked myself, “why am I reading this?” The answer was simple: “because Leo had something to say that I care about.”

      Doesn’t get much simpler than that, does it? Thanks!

      ~Jim


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