Say it Softly

The Internet has often been observed as being a double-edged sword in regards to content publication. Yes, it has reduced the barriers to entry and allowed more people than ever the ability to get their work to The People, whoever and wherever they might be. This egalitarian spirit has ensured that every voice can be heard, provided that voice has a compy and a connection, or at least a local public library, and this is a Good Thing.

Unfortunately, this also means that anyone and everyone can publish, which increases the volume. Because there’s so much out there, finding the good stuff can be difficult–it’s like taking one of Beethoven’s symphonies and turning up the noise on all channels. Finding the melody becomes impossible, and just the same, it is hard to find all the content on the ‘Net that’s worth finding. What’s more, it is hard to get your voice heard. Yes, it was difficult to get published in The Past, but once you were published, you were there. You were assured of getting noticed. The status quo has been flipped on its head, so now you can get published but no one will even care.

So people shout. They send spam emails and mass Facebook messages, get Twitter accounts to update voraciously, and climb to the tippy top of Babylon to make sure they can project as far as possible. If the noise has been turned up, it seems reasonable that one must overcome the noise to be noticed.

This logic isn’t necessarily flawed, but it must be moderated. The problem is twofold: 1) people shout too much and that’s a turn-off, and 2) they’re often shouting for no reason.

Volume is important, as both a quantity of space and in regards to sound, and it’s true that if the noise drowns you out then you’re simply drowned. You’ve got to find a way to rise above that noise, like a fish leaping from the water, so someone will notice and follow you (if I might borrow Twitter’s chosen word, which has grown on me quite a bit). However, if you keep shouting, getting louder and louder, chances are you’ll be tuned out. People will only take so much of it before they turn away.

Regardless of your volume though, you’ve got to have something to say or none of it matters. If what you’re trying to get people to notice sucks, then shouting won’t do a bit of good. They’ll come and look, yeah, but then they’ll leave. What’s more, they’ll tell others, and eventually even your first-visits will decline. There’s not much to gain from shouting about nothing, so you’ve got to make sure you have something at least decent to offer if you’re going to draw people’s attention to it.

Hulu makes commercials quiet, and it forces me to sit up and listen. This is an old trick used by public speakers, one that is proven to work well, and I similarly recommend it for web communication. You’ve got to say something, and you’ve got to say it loud enough to be heard, but don’t go beyond that. I send out Facebook mass messages, but only to people who have joined the SilverPen Publishing group, so they’ve essentially opted-in to that service. And even to those people who have agreed to receive such messages, I try to keep the quantity as low as possible (so far this year, I think I’ve sent three). I post on Twitter, but not generally to drive people to my site–I prefer to use that as a way to communicate with people I find interesting, and to post things I similarly think are interesting (though I’m probably mistaken). I make sure my site is optimized for search engines and that I write interesting and somewhat unique things so they show up high in search rankings. The trick is first to be heard, and then to get people coming back.

In public speaking, if you’ve got your audience’s attention, even just a little bit, and you lower the volume of your voice, it will cause them to unconsciously lean forward to hear you better. Then you’ve got them hooked–their eyes are on you, their chins are up, and they’re rapt. They want to know what will happen next.

Be loud when you need to get attention, but don’t shout all the time. Respect your fans, even the ones who haven’t heard of you yet, and the rest will take care of itself.

It’s The Thought That Counts

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

I was recently having a conversation with a young photographer I know about his aspirations for having a fancy new website designed. He was looking at spending a decent amount of cash to have something really slick put together for his photo gallery, and though the company was going to charge him a reasonable rate for that level of design work and manageability (meaning that it would be easily updated by the photographer himself), I wasn’t sure spending that much money on a website was a good idea at this point in his career. Though a fancy website is nice and will help accent, present, and convey your material, it is secondary to the material itself.

This might seem a bit contradictory to my earlier post which detailed how a poor design will stymie communication, so allow me to elaborate.

I read an article several years ago that looked with great curiousity at a number of online businesses that seemed to be succeeding despite their best efforts. These businesses had ugly, poorly formatted websites with outdated modes of communication and little information about their business or product. Designed in a style I usually refer to as “Angelfire-esque” or “Geocities ghetto,” the independent owners had put together something on the web that looked similar to what a cat might produce after eating too fast. They had a product, but they had no idea how to market it on the web.

And yet, they were succeeding. They were doing business online and turning a decent profit, to the confusion of everyone else who felt that a great design was needed to make your voice heard.

When surveying their customers, the journalist discovered that the people ordering goods from these sites actually preferred the poor design. It communicated to the customer that the owner cared less about a fancy website and more about them, the customers; that they spent more time on their product than on marketing; and that the end-result was higher quality service and goods.

I would never go so far as to say that this is always the case. Rather, I tend to think that if you are a seller of repute and quality, all aspects of your business should be of similar quality, and that extends to your website. But I do think the story highlights something that a lot of people are beginning to forget: the Content is More Important than the Wrapper.

Yes, a good design will help sell your product better, and once you’ve got a good product, your next step should be a good marketing approach and/or website design.  If your product is no good, though, the fanciness of your website becomes irrelevant.

I have known numerous photographers, webcomic artists, and authors whose websites were little more than a page with a single picture and the most rudimentary of navigation, or maybe they just threw their work onto a Blogger account (note: I personally detest Blogger and highly recommend WordPress as an alternative), and yet they were remarkable successes. This is because their work was of high quality and appealed to people. The content was good, so the wrapper or site design didn’t matter as much.

And generally speaking, once you’ve got the audience and fans, things move of their own accord and you eventually get a nicer website. But no one starts at the top, and likewise it probably isn’t wise to invest like you’re already there when you’re not.

A beginning musician doesn’t buy a five-million dollar Stradivarius violin, just like a beginning photographer doesn’t learn how to shoot photos on a ten-thousand dollar camera and a beginning author usually has nothing but a pen and paper. We all have to start somewhere and learn what we’re doing. We move up to the higher quality tools as we learn how to use them most effectively. Eventually, we reach a point where our work demands a better toolset, and we adjust accordingly.

But just because you have a Stradivarius doesn’t mean you can play like a master, and just because you have spent a few thousand dollars on a site doesn’t mean you’ll instantly have a booming business. So start small and focus on the quality of your product. Your customers will be attracted by your work, and they’ll be more attracted if they know that your focus is on them, not on yourself or your site. Put your work and your fans first and the rest will fall into place.

Quality

Amusingly enough, I wrote the article that went live this morning on Saturday, and then scheduled for it to post today. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last two weeks: writing articles, trying to get ahead a bit, and scheduling them to post in the future at 8 a.m. every day. In this manner, I could have a consistent update schedule and not have to get up super-early in the morning. The problem is that, even with the internship ending, I still have limited time to write, and some projects or pieces I want to work on take significantly longer than others. On average, a blog entry takes me about 15 minutes, so in theory I can do all four blog entries in an hour. An hour a day to have a consistent update schedule of an entry posting every day at 8 a.m. isn’t bad, but the problem is that not all blog entries are equal.

A poem might take 1-2 hours for me to write, and revision might lengthen that time. A short story might take me a week or longer. How-to articles on the tech blog often take an hour and a half to two hours, not counting research and testing time. A theological piece should take at least an hour or two as well. Personal updates are short and sweet, but everything else adds up quite a bit, to the extent that, if I put out the quality of work I desire, I’d be doing nothing but blogging for about four or five hours a day. Which I don’t have.

And the massive issue is that I still can’t do the length of work I want with that update schedule (like short stories). The quantity is there, but it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. Therefore, I’ve decided to drop the update schedule of an entry by 1 GMT every day and revert to “when I feel like it” blogging. It was a good experiment, but ultimately failed. Not only has my work been of a lower quality than I like (particularly in the religion section), but I don’t like feeling like I have to schedule things to post at 8 a.m. the next day. I want to write something in the moment, and to post it at that moment, rather than having to sanitize my language to place everything  in the past tense and schedule it for post somewhere down the road.

Not every blog will be updated every day, or even every few days, but I should have at least one entry in one of the blogs per day. You’d be best-off just subscribing to them all on an RSS feed (I’ve recently started using Google Reader and heartily endorse the technology) and seeing updates as they come.