The Elusive Audience

For many web designers the audience is elusive and is one of the last considerations that are made when designing a web page. However, the audience is paramount to the success of an online work as it is for any other work in any other medium.

And the success of a work can be measured in a number of ways, such as how many people visit your site, how long they stay, and what you actually want them to do once they are there (or when they leave) (ie. do you want then to pay for a service or perhaps take a active role in their community in terms of a political action).

Many people propose to present their work to an audience called everybody . But I don’t think that there is an actual audience called everybody because every body is different and everybody sees ‘everybody’ or the idea of the ‘everybody’ in different ways. Or more succinctly as the famous sociologist Raymond Williams once said ‘there is no such thing as the masses only ways to see the masses as the masses’.

That said, what are some of the key understandings of an online audience? Who is the online audience in a networked medium, where do they come from and what are they looking for? How do they behave and what sort of reciprocal relationships do you as a designer have with your online audience?


The first thing to remember is that an online audience is diverse. It is as diverse as the society in which we live in terms of age, money, social position, aspirations, education, and geographical locale. There are different needs of different audiences; younger audiences will be much more aware of issues that effect them as a group or more in tune with elements of a youth popular culture. Older audiences may be less willing to explore the net indiscriminately, but may be much more discerning and specialised in their net usage. Then there are issues of personal and group political beliefs, access to internet technology, and issues pertaining to where people actuality log onto and access the net (ie. at home or at the office).

All these things are important when thinking about your audience and it is the ability to imagine what your audience actually looks like that will guide you in the design of a work. (And there is nothing more humbling that spending weeks and week of hard work on a particular creation for an audience that just doesn’t get it).

Narrow casting (or Niche Audiences)

A main characteristic of an online audience is that the net supports niche or specialist audiences quite well. This is similar to the print world where every specialist interest may have a book written about it. Likewise, on the web no matter how small the audience, there seems to be a web site dedicated to it and the Internet’s low cost of publishing and low level of access drives niche audiences.

But when thinking about a niche audience, one must also consider how geographically dispersed that audience is. A niche interest, ie. a political campaign say against whaling in Japan may not have a large audience in Melbourne or even in other Australian cities, but when you combine a small audience in Melbourne with say another in say one is Seattle and another in Bangkok then your niche audience may become a large and influential audience.

And this is why the Google’s model of the sponsored link is so effective as a advertising tool in that, say, the history of Mud Wrestling may not draw a substantial audience in Melbourne and thus a small interest from advertisers, but take a small audience in Melbourne and combine this with one in every other city in the US or Europe and you have a substantial international niche audience (and I actually did an search on the history of mud wrestling but couldn’t find anything). So if you are designing for an international niche audience, then it is probably best to be ‘trans-local’ and not be too parochial and vernacular in your use of language or in the use of concepts that may only be understood a particular geographical locale.

Look at this example:

Another important thing to think about in terms of an online audience is that the Internet is a network medium meaning that the net is not one thing, but is a series of networks. And this is probably more important in the blog world where the use of track back and RSS feeds, and tags, and user comments has become everyday. So, a web site doesn ‘t stand alone all by itself, but sits within a network of references to other web sites and web sites that refer back to it. And this is very important in the academic world where the sharing of knowledge is fundamental to the advancement of knowledge. A book on the library shelf doesn ‘t sit all by itself, but sits within a field and through footnotes, and index pages, and bibliographies it links to a world of knowledge. So too with a web site; a web site sits within a field, within a genre, and within a network and this network is (in part) your audience.

Look at this example:

So how do you know that people are actually visiting your site? In the old days, people used to put hit counters on the splash page of their web site that showed a raw number. But this is pretty meaningless as most of the hits that a site gets are not in fact from humans, but are from robots or spammers crawling the web either looking for email addresses or creating indexes for search engines.

And there is a whole industry that measures web traffic and there are a lot of debates as how this can be done effectively. The providers of these services often measure basic metrics such as unique sessions, page-views, and visit durations, but there is no standard methodology for how they collect, and aggregate the results. Their results therefore vary. And understanding the various methodologies can help you interpret results more meaningfully. It is important to be aware that none of these firms can measure entire Internet traffic and only measure a sample of base data from which they extrapolate overall web usage and website rankings.


So once you have an audience, how do you keep that audience and how do you get them to come back? The first thing you have to think about is managing your content and putting systems into place that help you do this. Visitors will leave quickly if they notice out-of-date content on a site or the site has broken links. Sites with information that never change appear stale and updating information can be burdensome; but most sites now-a-days rely on content management systems such as wordpress or movabletype (or other blog-style content management systems such as blogger).

And there are a number of strategies that you can employ in terms of keeping and maintaining audiences; one being that you can provide a preview of the sites content for free but if you if user wants to view the full content, they must subscribe either for a small fee or for free. This is like window shopping in that everybody can read the abstract of a story, but if they want the full story then you must subscribe. Many news sites, including the Age Online, work like this (the Age online is free but it still requires you to subscribe).

Other sites have free sections and paid sections. lets people access much of its website for free, but if you subscribe, you receive special emails that contain content that only subscribers receive. Crikey also lets you put up your own advertisements for a small fee.

And again, a designer (or author) needs to think about the actual community that you are embedded within because people will come back to your site if they believe that they are part of a vibrant community (either online or offline) and they can contribute to and participate in this community (but there is nothing worse than placing a bulletin board or a comments section on a web site that no one comments upon.

How do you design for an audience?

So a few things to remember (once that you have figured out who you audience is and what you want them to do), is that although getting a good page rank on a search engine such as Google is a desirable thing in terms of increasing the traffic to your site, it’s not the entire picture. You still have to have to think about your message as you do in any other medium. In the online marketing field, too many agencies create site-optimisation strategies aimed at increasing search engine rankings that have little or no regard for the end user. You still have to write for the end user and if you are simply writing to target search engines, you are missing the point altogether.

The most effective way to position your website is to create it for an audience and this means knowing who your audience is (are they female, are they male, are the educated, who do they vote for?)

Meta tags

But that said, you still do need to think about your search engine results to some degree and the meta tags that you use on your site will increase the likely hood that your site is found by the right people. Meta tags or Meta data is simply data about data and it is probably more important in the academic world, where citing your sources and understanding the context in which knowledge was created, is of the utmost importance.

And one of the most important initiatives in the Meta data field is called the Dublin Core initiative. And Dublin Core is a more sophisticated way to give your site context through tags such as date created and author and rights and description and publisher (and there are a lot more of them as well).

So if you are using sophisticated meta tags on your site it is more likely that you site will be attributed with the correct meaning for which it was created by the correct audience.

How do you write for the Web?

An online article has to be accurate, clear, efficient, and precise (and a good article on this is called Every Word Counts from the book Web Journalism).

In terms of accuracy, you need to make sure that you are presenting your information in a truthful and accurate way in that you have your facts right and you have done your research.

In terms of clarity, you need to present your information in a way that can be understood by a particular audience. Your writing should answer the questions that could be expected by the audience; ie. does your audience understand the position that you are putting forward?

In terms of efficiency, this simply means using the fewest words to present your information accurately and clearly. Most people write in an inefficient way as they either don’t get to the point quickly enough or use too many words and sentences to say what could be said in just a few words. And this is especially important for the Internet as there are so many sites out there and your audience wants to know what your site is about pretty quickly.

And precision means that you should take care with your language in terms of tone and grammar and use words in their correct context to enhance their meaning.

And all of these things are audience driven and you must think about your audience and above all respect your audience.

And there are a number of common Journalistic practices that are useful for web writing; however there are also some unique characteristics of web writing as well. The most important one of course is hypertext and the ability to put links in the work so that it can be linked to either internal or external documents. The important thing here is to be strategic about how you use your links and not put too many unnecessary links in your work so that you lose your audience quickly.

The Guardian Unlimited is one of my favourite online newspapers have a look at how they mark up their articles for a broad web audience.


Not too many hyperlinks in the actual text but they are using a unique feature of online journalism which is the  summary  with a link to the longer article. And the guardian uses key words as a summary device as well. And one thing that I noticed about the Age online is that on occasions they imbed hyperlinks into the actual text of the story that link to previous stories. However, I ‘m not sure if The Age is continuing this wonderful practice that gives web journalism historical depth because the user usually has to pay for previous articles so there isn ‘t much point.

How do people read the web?

One of the most important things to think about for your own writing is how do people actually read a web site? Remember, that web is not just about reading, but it is also about writing. So when writing for the web, you also must consider the relationship with your reader.

One of the Gurus of web design or more accurately web usability is Jakob Nielson (and for those of you who are going to pursue the field in more depth I encourage you to look at his book: Designing Web Usability, released in 2000.

People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In studies by Jakob Neilson he found that 79 percent of his test users always scanned any new web page they came across; only 16 percent read the page word-by-word.

People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, , picking out individual words and sentences. In studies by Jakob Neilson he found that 79 percent of his test users always scanned any new web page they came across; only 16 percent read the page word-by-word.

People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, , picking out individual words and sentences. In studies by Jakob Neilson he found that 79 percent of his test users always scanned any new web page they came across; only 16 percent read the page word-by-word.

As a result, Web pages have to employ scannable text, using

  • highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)
  • meaningful sub-headings (not “clever” ones)
  • bulleted lists
  • one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
  • the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion
  • half the word count (or less) than conventional writing

Nielsen found that credibility is important for Web users (and we have looked at this is the workshops), since it is often unclear who is behind information on the Web and whether a page can be trusted. Credibility can be increased by high-quality graphics, good writing, and use of outbound (or absolute) hypertext links. Links to other sites show that the authors have done their homework and are not afraid to let readers visit other sites.



3 responses to “The Elusive Audience”

  1. Rahima Hayes Avatar

    very interesting and relavant! a student of rmit masters program, have referenced it in my blog (an academic requirement). stumbled across your website as I was wanting to access milkbar. was slightly disappointed it wasnt still active! Needing to do my own online doco (again an academic requirement) BUT will develop my own personal project shortly utilising this concept of online doc.

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