It is both simple and difficult:
1. Report on the topics your audience finds interesting and relevant. Do it in a timely fashion. Tell them where they can get more information beyond what is on your site.
Who is the audience? The audience isn’t monolithic, so figure out the different groups that your website is supposed to serve. Students, mainly. Faculty and staff. Parents. Alumni. People in the community (who are paying for the school). Have a session with your students where you talk about the audiences that your website is supposed to serve. What kind of information, for instance, do parents want to know that students may not be interested in. Can your website provide that information?
What information do these audiences need? Try to make your site necessary for your readers. Your students are not likely to think of the website in this way, but they should. Try to change their attitude about this. They are doing important and significant work for their audiences.
Begin with the question above: what do your audiences need? To answer that, of course, you will need to know something about your audiences and their lives.
What are those people interested in? This is an easier question than the previous one, but it’s still one that you and your stuff must deal with. Yes, they are probably interested in the things that you and your students are interested in. Do their interests extend beyond that?
How do they want to get information? They want information, and they want it quickly. What devices do they use to get it. How many of your students, teachers, parents, etc. have smart phones? Do they get their news on their phone? Do they text?
When do they want it? When will it be of use to them? The web is a constant thing — available 24/7. So is your website. You and your students may not be able to continually feed it, but this question still is important for you to deal with. If you cover a football game on Friday night, when do people want to know the score?
One more thing: Your website probably exists for two reasons. One, to inform the audience. Two, to provide your journalism students an educational opportunity. You shouldn’t lose site of the second reason, and your students shouldn’t lose site of the first one. The website is not there for their amusement or indulgence. Constantly remind your students that they have important work to do. They are central to making your school what it is — more important than the football or basketball team.
2. Present original and credible information. Give the audience information they’re not going to get anywhere else. And don’t waste their time.
Chances are, no news organization is going to pay as much attention to your school and its students as you are. You then have a golden opportunity to be the chief source of information about one of the most important aspects of the lives of your students, faculty and parents. You can give them information that they are not going to get anywhere else.
If you develop a reputation for accuracy, you are going to build your credibility. And people are going to come back to the site.
And make sure the information is presented efficiently.
3. Tell people what you’ve got on your site. Use Facebook, Twitter, email, topical bulletin boards, blogs, and any other legitimate means to link back to your site.
You can’t expect people to show up to your site without telling them that it’s there — and what’s there.
Twitter. This is an excellent tool for news distribution and one that you and your students should be using. Your news website should have a Twitter account where you can post breaking news and direct readers back to your site for more information. Twitter has many uses. You should familiarize yourself with them and use this tool as much as possible. Get your students to tweet about the stories your site has.
Take a look at this article on JPROF: Writing for Twitter: good journalism in 140 characters.
Facebook. All of your students probably have a Facebook account. (So should you.) It’s not a bad idea for your website to have a Facebook page and your staff to have a Facebook group. At the very least, your students should be posting links to their articles (and to the articles of others on your website) on their Facebook pages.
Search engine optimization. One way of getting people to your site is through search engine optimization (SEO). This means getting Google and other search engines to notice the items on your site and give them a high ranking. There are ways to do this that are straightforward and legitimate. Here’s an introduction to the concepts of SEO.
4. Let your audience in on the conversation. Allow them to comment, use online polls, email, and other ways of responding.
With the web, we see news going from a product that news websites produce to a conversation that good journalists initiate, lead and direct. Work on getting your audience engaged in what you are doing and reporting on. If your website is giving accurate, timely and interesting information, your audience will want to respond to that.
Use reader engagement polls to ask questions of your readers about how they feel about a particular story or about other issues that may interest them. PollDaddy.com is one of several polling services that allow you to create online polls that you can embed in your stories. Take a look at this example:
5. Repeat steps 1- 4. You will gather an audience.
This plan is not a one-time thing. It has to be the way you operate your site.
So, here’s what you do:
Try to put at least one new thing on your site every day. The web is an insatiable beast. You have to feed it constantly. Seriously, doing this will tell your readers that when they return to the site, they will find something different. They won’t come back if it’s the same.
Design doesn’t matter very much in building an audience. There are lots of reasons for this (and you may disagree). Some of them are found on this page from the extended Going Online summer workshop. The more time you spend fretting about and piddling with the design of your site, the less you can spend on building the audience. Design means a lot to people who are producing a website. It means little to an audience. It means nothing to Google and other search engines.
Look for stories and information that are unique. You want your site to give readers what they can’t get anywhere else.
Track your audience using Google Analytics or some other data gathering program. ISONN sites use Google Analytics, which produces a rich trove of information about who is visiting your site. Set this up and take a look at what parts of your site and content are drawing audiences.
Enough. What ideas do you have? Let us know about them on the JN-21 forum.
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