The Challenges of Addressing Digital Audiences

Effectively addressing digital audiences is a critical function of being a technical writer. However, our authors this week demonstrate how difficult this task can be. Not only are audiences fragmented in a digital space (as Bernadette Longo points out in chapter 6), but there are many cultural practices and barriers that prevent us from communicating to everyone adequately (as Barry Thatcher shows in chapter 7).

Besides fragmentation and cultural barriers, I would argue that algorithms also create challenges for technical writers to adequately construct, address, and engage with digital audiences.  

Constructing Audiences

There are many algorithms that can make it challenging to form a digital audience. For example, Google’s algorithms can make it challenging for users to find your content. In order to rank on the first page, you have to follow rules and tackle specific key terms. I’ve learned that in order to get my articles to rank, they need to be over 1,000 words, mention the keyword more than once, link to multiple websites, have the article be linked on other websites, be published on a Google trusted site, be shared by others, have numerous pictures, and the list goes on.

Search results for best IoT platform

If you follow these rules and algorithms, it can be quite easy to rank and gives users a means to find your content. However, these rules don’t make it easy to address audiences effectively. I have found myself spending so much time trying to meet the requirements (such as saying the keyword more than 50 times), that I wonder if I’m actually creating helpful content for users. The search results are also so competitive and manipulated that you have to write sensational headlines and more just to get noticed. I’m not saying it’s impossible to write SEO (search engine optimization) content and not have it be helpful, but it certainly presents a challenge to content writers to construct and address digital audiences effectively.

Addressing Audiences

Tom Johnson, a well-known technical writer, states that writing good documentation can be challenging because it can feel like your writing to the “absent user”. That’s because documentation platforms provides little or no measurable means to track how users engage with your content. Of course, as Tom Johnson points out, there are numerous tools that can be used to gather knowledge and feedback of how users are engaging with your documentation — surveys, web analytics, plugins, etc.

Google Analytics — An example of web analytic platform. Source: freeCodecamp

Even though we have these tools, I believe Tom Johnson makes a good point that digital spaces (like documentation) don’t inherently give us many tools to understand how users engage with our content. I find this same challenge when writing a corporate blog. I know users are visiting my content due to web analytics and other marketing tools, but it can be difficult to know if the content is addressing their actual needs. In a digital space, the best means to get feedback from users is from surveys, but even this can be challenging because users are usually flooded with so many different forms of digital communication. And when users do take surveys, they can provide general, or extremely non-specific feedback.

No matter how you cut, the web (by design) does not give technical users many helpful ways to address their audiences. They must go out of their way to interact with end users and get feedback. I believe this is why technical writers have to train themselves to become more customer and UX-driven. Without these practices, technical communicators cannot be effective at their job.

Engaging Audiences

Algorithms can also make it challenging for digital creators to create engaging content. For example, have you ever searched a simple question on YouTube and can only find 15 minute long videos that take forever to answer the question you searched? That’s because YouTube’s algorithm favors longer videos, which forces creators to prolong their videos to meet these arbitrary requirements. That means creators could be spending more time trying to extend their video length, rather than creating  quality content that actually helps users with problems.

What to do?

While specific rules and algorithms can limit technical writers, they can be easily overcome. In the end, it’s the job of the technical writer to be aware of these rules and continue to find ways to communicate effectively despite them. It’s the reason why we are hired. We’re expected to not just know how to address audiences effectively, but know the algorithms that effect us from being able to communicate adequately.

Posted on November 11, 2018, in Blogs, Digital, Marketing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Jeff, I think I made the same comment about your content strategy discussion in this post https://745techprofcomm.wordpress.com/2018/10/28/how-to-show-management-your-value-as-a-technical-communicator/#comments but the focus on algorithms here would also make for a great final paper in this course! Actually if you are trying to decide between the two, the “value of tech communicator” one is a better bet, given the range of scholarship we’ve read this semester, but your final paragraph here is such a strong call to action, it also deserves a longer look! Let me know if you want to talk more as the proposal begins to take shape.

    • Hi Dr. Pignetti!

      Based off your comment, I actually decided to focus my final paper on what is covered in this blog post. I found plenty of literature that discusses how social media (and other tools) prevent and enable us from communicating with digital audiences. With my final paper, I hope to learn more than what is covered in this blog post about how our communication is enabled and limited.

  2. Jeff – thanks for your post this week! Looking at audience in terms of algorithms isn’t something I’ve considered much in my work but it definitely affects much of the content out there on the web. You said” I have found myself spending so much time trying to meet the requirements (such as saying the keyword more than 50 times), that I wonder if I’m actually creating helpful content for users.” I think that’s an important point to highlight, it’s a difficult balance between meeting the requirements and writing useful content for the audience. I would imagine in some articles, using a keyword 50+ times might be overwhelming for the reader and make them disengage with the material.

    Your point reminds me of social media in a way. As someone who works with a lot of social media, I hear from many different sources about what draws engagement to a post. There are a million “tips” out there saying when to post content to what social media sites, what types of content get the most engagement, how to drive traffic to a site, but they all offer different advice. The social media landscape is changing so quickly it’s difficult to keep up with exactly when the best time is to post a video to Facebook to drive engagement. I imagine with algorithms the same thing is happening, Google and other search engines are probably fairly regularly adjusting their algorithms to make sure the best search results are being displayed. With technology changing so quickly, it’s difficult for technical communicators to keep up – but it’s also critical the they are so the content is being produced appropriately.

    Thanks,
    Brittney

    • Hi Brittney!

      You’re definitely right. It’s extremely challenging to keep up with Google and social media’s constantly changing algorithms and standards. Just the other day, I was explaining to a writer how SEO works on Google. I pointed him to a blog post that I used to initially learn about SEO earlier this year, which you can find here: https://moz.com/blog/rank-in-2018-seo-checklist

      I realize now that this blog post was written at the beginning of 2018. It made me wonder how much has changed in the past year and how that might impact everything on this list.
      I hope the same author who wrote this post writes a 2019 guide on to rank in Google’s search results. If not, I’m sure someone else will. Regardless, being able to find literature like this and keeping up is a part of our job. But it can still be hard to keep up with when there are so many standards and rules that are changing all the time.

  3. Hi Jeffrey,
    You wrote, “Even though we have these tools, I believe Tom Johnson makes a good point that digital spaces (like documentation) don’t inherently give us many tools to understand how users engage with our content.” I think the fact that our content often goes out to members of different cultures and geographical areas compounds, or adds another dimension to this issue. In other words, the broader the audience, the more difficult the task becomes for technical communicators to understand how their audiences will use the information. It might help to understand what the larger audience does have in common and use that as a base. For example, in a large company there might be some common slogans, themes, branding, and messaging that people get used to. We can draw on these commonalities to understand the audience, at least in part. However, it still takes some deeper diving to truly understand how users engage with the content.
    Lisa

    • Lisa,

      I agree that different cultures and geographical areas adds another dimension to this issue. I once bought a product (a jacket) from a French company and now I’ll receive an email from them time to time. You can tell the email is written by some agency that is translating the text to American English. However, I notice that there product messaging gets slightly messed up in the translation, which leads to humorous and confusing messages. However, what remains consistent is the overall branding (color, style, tone) and messaging, which compels me to stay interested in the product regardless of the slight translation issues.

  4. Hi Jeffrey,

    Great post and content this week. I enjoyed how you began your post with this idea of speaking to certain audiences and tackling how to address each audience can be challenging. I definitely agree with this, as an individual who works in the communications and marketing profession, I am familiar with the technicalities of writing to each group and having to treat each group separately. By using targeted language and addressing the individuals who make up that target audience you actually are having a conversation with them in which they feel as if they are being spoken to and when this cross happens it allows for both parties to put in more effort or even the feel the need/desire to pay attention.

    This leads me into my next question. While analytics and tracing users behaviors are great indicators in beginning to find the areas our audience might be interested in and then following this up with a question to see if they respond to verify their interest, do you think there are more precise ways or suggestions for actually getting an audience to pay attention or find out more about them without the use of analytics?

    Thanks,

    Kim

    • Great question, Kim

      Likes and comments are a great and simple way to gain information about your audience. However, without analytics, I feel the best way requires getting personal with your audience in some way. Whether that be directing reaching out to those who comment and learning more about them, or, sending out a survey to customers who typically engage with your blog. In my opinion, these are some of the best not-analytic ways to learn more about your audience.

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