Building an Audience

Encouraging Return Traffic

nlike a book, film, or exhibition, the success of most websites relies on repeat usage, on becoming one of your users’ favorite places on the web.15 Most website creators launch their site with fanfare and then make the mistake of expecting these initial efforts will carry them forward. The most important strategy for encouraging return traffic is to keep your site “fresh” with continual updates to make your website look active and lived-in. For example, have a link on your home page that points to a changing “featured” page. When you make substantive changes to your website, advertise them with a publicity push similar to the one you undertook when you launched your site. This does not mean you should constantly redesign your site. On the contrary, you want to maintain a consistent look and feel to your website, allowing your visitors to feel comfortable and familiar with its contents. Probably the most important thing you can do is to begin to develop a regular relationship with those who visit your site. If possible, provide your community with some valuable service that will bring them back frequently-a continually updated bibliography, for example. The Center for History and New Media (CHNM) developed a searchable database of history department web pages, which many people found to be an easy way to locate historians.16

A simple way to connect with your audience is to create a guestbook that asks people to register for the site. Some sites make registration mandatory, but that approach will drive people away unless you have a very compelling site. Once you have a mailing list, you can establish a newsletter that can be a key mechanism for bringing visitors to your site. History News Network (HNN), where the site changes daily, sends out two newsletters per week to 11,000 subscribers and those newsletters are responsible for at least one-third of the traffic to the site. In these days of proliferating spam, however, you need to avoid sending your regular users more notices than they want to receive.

But you should encourage them to be in touch with you. Set up a “contact us” email address or web form, whereby visitors can send you technical or historical questions. This lets you know about common problems users encounter and helps make visitors feel that they have a connection to you. Save all inquiries and turn them into an FAQ (frequently asked questions) page. The National Park Service invites historical queries directed at their historians and gets about fifteen to twenty questions a day. Many questions only take one minute to answer, but others can take ten or fifteen minutes-a considerable amount of work but spread out among dozens of Park Service historians.17

Discussion boards can make people regular visitors to your site. The History Channel’s very active forums, which focus heavily on military history, get thousands of postings. Discussion boards, however, run the risk of either getting little or no participation, which will give your site a neglected or abandoned feel, or attracting too intense a following, which could cause unseemly controversy. HNN’s discussion feature, which allows for commentary on every article posted, has drawn thousands of respondents, but some have pushed the boundaries of civility, annoying others and driving them away from the site. HNN eventually had to limit participation to those who registered and insist that posters use their real names.

Games and quizzes can also attract a following, though they run the risk of seeming gimmicky. During the late 1990s, for instance, Discovery Communications’ history website featured Someone In Time, in which participants guessed the identity of an unnamed historical figure from clues provided. Every two weeks, the game’s creators revealed the identity of the historical figure and then introduced a new one. “People played the game religiously,” explains Rieland of “There was a message board, and people became friends with one another-they were all connected by the common experience of playing the game. They had reunions. Two participants died during the period of the game, and there were online wakes for them.”18 Despite Rieland’s enthusiasm, games and puzzles require significant staff time to come up with new editions. Over time, we found it harder and harder to change our own History Matters puzzles regularly.

15 Most web users tend to make a “habit” of certain sites. See John B. Horrigan and Lee Rainie, Counting on the Internet (Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2002); John Carey, “The Web Habit: An Ethnographic Study of Web Usage,” OPA White Papers 2.1 (January 2004); “Internet Metrics: The Loyal Audience,” OPA White Papers 1.1 (May 2002).

16 “Guide to History Departments,” Center for History and New Media, ↪link 5.16.

17 Harry Butowsky, interview, 14 June 2004; National Park Service, “Ask a Question,” Links to the Past, ↪link 5.17.

18 Rieland, interview.