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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.