Building an Audience

Connecting with a Community

n Chapter 1, we urged you to think about the “genre” of history website that you want to create–for example, an archive, a teaching site, a museum exhibit, or an organizational hub. One of the chief reasons for such an approach, as social theorist Phil Agre explains, is that genres connect with particular communities, and if you don’t understand the communities to which your site is directed and how you can help those communities, you are unlikely to be successful. But focusing on genres and communities does more than just bring visitors to your site. Agre argues that a key goal for design in new media should be supporting “the collective cognitive processes of particular communities” because “broad access to the means of collective cognition” is “a core democratic value.”3

In other words, building your audience by supporting and connecting with communities is not only the least expensive and most effective way of promoting your site, it is also the one that most likely supports your larger social goals. If you create a site for teaching high school students about women’s suffrage, you will only have accomplished your mission if you both reach those teachers and improve their teaching about women’s rights (their collective cognition). Although you lack the resources of commercial web marketers, you also likely have the advantage of being part of, or at least being familiar with, the community you are trying to reach. Chances are that if you are creating a site on Akkadian myths, you are an Akkadian scholar and already know many other members of that scholarly community. You might even have access to a mailing list or an email discussion list of researchers of Mesopotamia.

To be sure, not all promotional efforts are that focused. In general, web audiences are less likely to be well defined than those in print and other media. Although most communities form around occupations and social locations (teachers, scholars, museum curators), substantial communities of interest also organize themselves around particular historical topics—notably the amateur enthusiasts who bring deep passion to subjects ranging from the Peloponnesian War to the American civil rights movement.

You therefore need to develop ways to reach the members of those communities. Where do these folks congregate–both offline and online? Which organizations do they join? What do they read? For our archival and teaching site on the French Revolution, entitled Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, our first target audience was teachers of French history at colleges and universities in the United States, a very manageable community of about one thousand. Many of them attend the annual meeting of the Society for French Historical Studies (SFHS), the U.S.-based group for historians of France, and smaller meetings of regional groups such as the Western Society for French History, where we demonstrated our site to colleagues. If we had a bigger promotional budget, we might have purchased the mailing list for the SFHS and sent out a postcard announcing the site. We employed that strategy in launching our site for U.S. history survey teachers called History Matters, spending about $1,500 to mail cards to 5,000 members of the Organization of American Historians. We could also have advertised in publications directed at American historians like the Journal of American History, a strategy used by the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project.4 Email, of course, offers a cheaper (free) alternative. Almost every promotional plan for a history website should begin with an announcement on the relevant H-Net lists.

Unfortunately not every community is as easy to identify as college and university French historians or H-Net subscribers. High school, community, and college western civilization and world history instructors also teach about the French Revolution. How do we reach them? Some belong to groups like the American Historical Association, and so we made sure to make presentations at its annual meeting and to get Liberty, Equality, Fraternity noticed in Perspectives, its newsletter. (Almost every professional group sponsors a newsletter, and they will generally run free announcements. We promoted our Echo site on the history of science and technology extensively through these announcements.) High school teachers are one of the hardest audiences to reach. The National Council for Social Studies’ 18,000 active members represent only a small fraction of the country’s estimated 120,000 high school history and social studies teachers.5 In any case, it would cost you about $1,700 to buy just the more limited mailing list, and then you would have to pay for postage and a flyer. A less costly approach is placing an article in Social Education, their national magazine, or getting on the program for their national meeting or one of their regional or state meetings. You can also rent exhibit space at one of these conferences. We spent about $1,000 for an exhibit booth to promote Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and History Matters, which gave us the opportunity to speak one on one with dozens of teachers.

Purchasing an exhibit booth at a conference is probably less effective than getting on the program. These formal presentations give you an opportunity to demonstrate the value of your site to colleagues. Matthew Nickerson of Southern Utah University notes that whenever he speaks about his site, Voices of the Colorado Plateau, at a conference, the server logs show a spike in visitors.6

Perhaps even more influential than your own enthusiasm is the recommendation of your site by trusted colleagues. You should try to get your site reviewed as widely as possible. The Journal of American History(in collaboration with History Matters) has been reviewing history websites since 2001, and other journals are beginning to do the same. The Scout Report, run by the University of Wisconsin, provides influential reviews on a wide range of topics. If you are proud of what you have accomplished, you should make sure your site is considered for prizes and other recognitions. The early days of the web brought a proliferation of largely meaningless “top website” laurels. But now more reputable organizations have begun to recognize digital history–for example, the “Best of the Web” awards given at the annual “Museums and the Web” conference as well as the American Association of Museums Muse Awards. The National Endowment for the Humanities organizes regular panels to evaluate sites for listing in its EDSITEment directory.7

Although the most effective approach to publicity is to think about your target communities and then try to find out where they congregate and what they read, you will also want to do online research on related communities that might be brought to your site. What are similar sites to yours, and who is their audience? Look at history “gateway” sites such as History Matters, World History Matters, and Best of History Web Sites (see Chapter 1) and see what sites they list (and also try to get your site listed there).

Once you’ve identified those sites that have the most in common with your project, contact their operators to introduce yourself and ask for advice and reciprocal links. Not only do you need to court your fellow website operators, you need to join their communities of users. Participate in the bulletin board discussions and listserv exchanges that these sites host. Take a serious interest in your community–“make them feel like you’re paying attention,” as Rieland of puts it–and they will pay attention to you.8

Finally, if your site is connected to a museum exhibition or a book, try to come up with ways to create virtual communities from the actual communities that those offline productions attract. In fact, even if your site is not formally connected to a real-world installation, see if you can piggyback on related efforts by placing postcards with your URL in local or on-topic museum galleries or by meeting with teachers to explain the educational possibilities of your website. Given the virtual nature of the web, face-to-face meetings and physical objects retain considerable power–or perhaps acquire an even greater impact. Many history sites, including our own, have found that inexpensive novelty items–pens, bookmarks, mouse pads, and mugs–help to remind people to take a look at your site. (And while you are at it, include your URL on your business cards, stationery, and email signature.) Establishing and maintaining a real-world presence through partnerships with schools, museums, groups of enthusiasts, and professional organizations gives you a ready pool of potential visitors and access to networks of interested community members.

3 Philip E. Agre, “Designing Genres for New Media: Social, Economic, and Political Contexts,” in Steve Jones, ed., CyberSociety 2.0: Revisiting Computer Media Community and Technology (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1998), 79, 95.

4 CHNM and American Social History Project, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolutionlink 5.4; Drew VandeCreek, interview, 10 June 2004.

5CHNM, Echo: Exploring and Collecting History Online–Science, Technology, and Industry, ↪link 5.5.; The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports 118,570 teachers in secondary school and 15,436 in combined secondary and primary. Kelly Gruber, email to Emily Bliss, 10 June 2004.

6 Matthew Nickerson, interview, 9 June 2004.

7 For Best of the Web, see ↪link 5.7a; for Muse, see ↪link 5.7b; for Edsitement, see ↪link 5.7c. The American Library Association gives Katharine Kyes Leab & Daniel J. Leab American Book Prices Current Exhibition Awards “for excellence in the publication of catalogs and brochures that accompany exhibitions of library and archival materials, as well as for electronic exhibitions of such materials.” See ↪link 5.7d.

8 Rieland, interview.