Write for your audience, not algorithms and advertisers

We’re told to “write for your audience”, but have we thought about what this really means?

Write for your audience, not algorithms and advertisers
Photo by Etienne Girardet / Unsplash

We're repeatedly told to “write for your audience”, but have we stopped to think about what this really means? My take is to ask yourself as a reader: when you read a good article, do you actually care how many page views it has generated? When you finish a good book, does it matter to you how many other people have read it?

I would think that as readers, we really don’t care. If we love the article, book, video, or other piece of content and want other people to appreciate it, then we would share it and recommend it to them. But whether or not they actually read it wouldn’t affect our enjoyment. In fact, even if you’re the only one in the world who has read that story, you wouldn’t care because you’re judging the quality of the content and your own enjoyment, not the number of readers.

If you think about it, page views only matter to algorithms and advertisers because it’s one of their metrics, and you as the writer will only care if instead of writing for your audience, you are more concerned with monetizing your content.

When you write for your audience, you don’t have to compromise. You’re not beholden to any advertiser.

When you write for your audience, you write for people. You don’t care about search engine optimization. You’re not worried about inserting keywords in your articles. You don’t obsess over page views, bounce rates, and other metrics.

Now, I realize this might sound too idealistic, and even counterintuitive in this digital age when we’re supposed to monitor our online publications with Google Analytics and tweak our content accordingly depending on what works and what doesn’t.

And how we’re supposed to think of what would make our content engaging and easy to share so that there’s a chance it will go viral on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks.

And how we’re supposed to optimize our content for the algorithms of Google and Facebook, and even use paid media to boost their performance, so that we can generate more traffic and engagement to attract advertisers and keep them happy.

I know, it’s ironic because I’ve spent a good part of my career as a digital marketer and social media manager. And, yes, it’s true that content creation should be both art and science. But it’s also true that nowadays, the science is running too rampant and content is being created and consumed based on the metrics of those who are clueless about content.

Why should you, as the content creator, let algorithms tell you what’s good content? Algorithms don’t even distinguish between real and fake news. In fact, algorithms tend to spread the latter, so how can these tech companies and tech bros even judge what makes content great?

Why should you, as the content creator, let advertisers tell you what’s good content? Advertisers just want stories that promote their products, boost their brands, and put their companies in a good light.

That’s why I don’t believe in ad-supported content. News and magazine sites really should stop saying “paywall” and call it what it is: subscription.

And readers should stop being freeloaders. It costs a lot to create quality content, so we should be willing to pay for a subscription. It’s no different from subscribing to Netflix.

Why are we willing to pay for entertainment, and not for journalism?

We used to buy print newspapers and magazines. It’s not like this is something alien. The only problem is that news sites decided from the start to give away their online content for free.

Sometimes I feel guilty for playing a role in this as one of the pioneers who spun off INQUIRER.net from the print newspaper, and as an ex-Yahoo, because Yahoo! aggregated content that news companies were giving away like crazy. But that’s their business decision.

I guess they refused to believe print, and to a lesser extent broadcast, would start dying, and wouldn’t be able to subsidize their ad-supported model for online content.

Here’s the thing: an ad-supported model just makes the quality of journalism suffer. Plus news companies can’t compete with Google and Facebook. Heck, news companies even advertise on them to try to increase their traffic and build an audience.

I know, it will be a long, uphill climb to get readers to pay for content.

Case in point: I was a proud founding member of The Correspondent, which published member-funded, unbreaking journalism. Precisely because they didn’t believe in ad-supported journalism. Unfortunately, the experiment didn’t work and they ceased publishing on Jan. 1, 2021. I was willing to pay, but unfortunately not enough readers were.

I honestly don’t know what the answer is for publishers, but I do know from personal experience that I’m happily supporting content creators directly through Patreon, so that’s one platform you might consider if you create quality content and want to write for your audience. It's also why I'm publishing Digital Life Asia here on Ghost, because I believe in its vision for the creator economy.

I don’t know what the future holds. But I know we can do better.

Because we have to.