Building an Audience


In this chapter you will learn about:

  • Defining and reaching your project’s audience(s)
  • Ways to market your site, from individual contacts to mass media
  • How Google and other search engines rank your site and refer visitors
  • Getting your visitors to come back to your site regularly and contribute suggestions for improvement
  • What server logs are, and how they may help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your site

e all wish we lived in a world where interest in history rivaled the popularity of Google, Amazon, and Yahoo, but interest—even modest interest—in your history website is not a given. To reach an audience, you will to have to think carefully about who it is you want to reach and how best to reach them. Although the web greatly facilitates the distribution of your work, it doesn’t make it easy to ensure that it is being used widely, deeply, well-or at all.

As historians, we receive training in many helpful skills, such as the close reading of texts, the ability to read and speak foreign languages, the art of essay writing and historical argument, and the way to moderate discussions. No graduate history programs offer courses on marketing or public relations, however. Moreover, print, film, or museum historians can generally count on well-defined and well-established audiences assembled and organized through journal subscriptions, libraries’ buying priorities, publishers’ catalogs, newspaper listings of television programs and films, museum membership programs, and tourist patterns. But for the most part, comparable mechanisms have not yet emerged on the web.

Digital historians have typically spent much more time on the matters discussed in the previous three chapters (infrastructure, digitizing, and design) than on the subject of this chapter-reaching your desired audience, getting them excited about your site, improving your site over time to best serve your (hopefully growing number of) visitors, and closely tracking how well you are meeting your goals.1 In part that reflects a distrust of topics like “marketing.” But, as we argue here, to build an audience for your site is to serve the most fundamental democratic and intellectual goals that we share as historians.

In Chapter 4, we noted that some historians consider any special attention to design as an unnecessary frill. Many historians view the idea of “marketing” their site even more skeptically. Some argue that this “commercial” perspective is not in keeping with the professional work of historians and that any genuinely valuable site will already have an eager audience that will flock to it without any encouragement. Others question whether we should worry about numbers at all and insist that a few satisfied “customers” are more than adequate.

We agree that market size should not be the sole or even primary criterion for judging good historical work. After all, a small site detailing Akkadian myths will receive fewer visitors than a site detailing the battlefields of the American Civil War (at least in the United States) regardless of the respective quality of the sites or the intelligence and energy of their creators. Indeed, one of the advantages of the web is that it can reach small and targeted audiences cost effectively. The number of people interested in a book, film, or museum exhibit on the history of a small town in Montana might not be large enough to justify the expense of production and distribution. A self-published website, however, can reach at almost no cost the widely dispersed former residents of a Western ghost town—or geographically scattered Akkadian experts.

However small your audience, you still need to reach them, and in the increasingly crowded world of the web, quality is not enough to guarantee that your intended audience will find you by word of mouth. Moreover, reaching an intended audience online has become a matter of survival for historical organizations. The scholarly American Historical Association (AHA) may not appeal to a cross-section of the population, but its site still needs to connect with those committed to a scholarly and professional view of the past. Nine out of ten new members of the AHA now arrive through its website. Similarly, because visits to historic sites and museums often start with a stopover at their website, a hard-to-find or difficult-to-use site will result in fewer paying visitors. Of course, most historians measure success not by dollars but by looks of understanding from our students, nods of agreement from our colleagues, the prompting of further insights from others who work in our field, or even the reshaping of public debates. But without at least a modicum of usage, a historical website is unlikely to inspire any of those lofty and satisfying outcomes.

Two basic principles can help you create and maintain a useful and used website. First, think about community, not numbers of visitors. This is not so different from most nondigital work in history, where historians aspire to enter into and shape a community of discourse, whether scholars of medieval women’s history or undergraduate students of world history. You should measure your website’s success not just by how many people use it but even more by how well they use it. And the most important step in building an audience for your site is having a clear idea of its purposes, who precisely you want to speak to, and why.

Second, be simultaneously flexible and focused in your approach. If you notice that significant numbers of your site’s visitors are not part of your intended audience, be ready to rethink your efforts. Perhaps you should redirect your efforts toward this unexpected audience. The Library of Congress, as we highlighted earlier, launched their project of digitizing vast quantities of their collections envisioning an audience similar to the one that walks in the door to their reading rooms-serious scholars and researchers. Early on, they learned to their surprise that high school students and teachers eagerly embraced the opportunity to connect with primary historical sources. As a result, they began to develop tools, resources, publicity, and especially programs directed specifically at that audience, an unconventional departure for an institution that had not previously served K-12 students.

Similarly, if you discover that your site is so broad in its subject matter that few visitors feel a sense of connection or allegiance to it, you should be ready to narrow your focus. Or if you learn that your website has attracted two distinct audiences using it for two distinct purposes, then relaunch different incarnations of your website for each purpose, or at least “segregate” elements of your site beyond the home page to serve each audience in a more targeted way. Naturally, you may need to adjust your voice as you speak to these different audiences, especially ones not accustomed to an academic writing style.

DoHistory, a site organized around the diary of eighteenth-century midwife Martha Ballard, uses a simple device to orient multiple audiences to its site. The home page features a drop-down menu that asks whether you are interested in any of seven diverse areas: Martha Ballard herself, midwifery and herbal medicine, genealogy, films about the past, diaries, the use of primary sources, or teaching with the site. If you choose “midwifery and herbal medicine,” you are directed to a list of all the medicinal ingredients mentioned in Ballard’s diary, an annotated bibliography on midwifery, and about twenty primary source documents related to these topics. If you instead click on the link for “genealogy,” you are sent to the site’s “History Toolkit,” which offers advice on conducting oral histories and working with deeds, probate records, diaries, gravestones, and other sorts of primary records. “You can serve multiple audiences,” notes Randy Rieland, who headed up’s history efforts, “but don’t try to serve them in the same way.”2

1 Very little has been written about marketing for history or nonprofit websites. There are many business-oriented works such as Simon Collin, Work the Web, E-marketing (West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2000);Susan Sweeney, 101 Ways to Promote Your Website: Filled with Proven Internet Marteting Tips, Tools, Techniques, and Resources to Increase Your Web Site Traffic (4th ed.; Gulf Breeze, Fla.: Maximum Press, 2003).

2 Randy Rieland, interview, 17 May 2004.