3 Audience First, Audience Always: Writing Successful Web Content

Dr. Adrienne Lamberti

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, students will be able to do the following:

  • Recognize how audience demographics shape an audience’s purpose when using a digital text, and the best methods for arranging, styling, and delivering a text for that purpose
  • Name how cultural, generational, and technological differences among audiences affect their patterns of interactivity with a digital text
  • Name how cultural, generational, and technological differences among audiences affect their synthesis of digital texts to create new meaning

Students have spotted important differences in using print versus digital documents since the early days of electronic texts—but this recognition has been a learning curve for others.

For example, in 2002 the publisher W. W. Norton & Company put out Writing for the Information Age by Bruce Ross-Larson. This print book, which described best practices in writing web content, was visually innovative: Writing was designed to resemble conventional websites of that time. The book began with a sitemap to guide readers, and each page in the book featured a side navigational bar, with “hotlinks” that referenced other pages. It was an impressively ambitious text.


Photocopy of textbook page

Fig. 1. Inside page of Writing for the Information Age (copyright W. W. Norton).

Despite the novelty of its print design, however, Norton published only the first edition of Writing for the Information Age. A marketing blurb for the book hints at one reason for its short life. As the blurb described, Writing was targeted at the same audience who often is advised to consult Strunk and White’s famous Elements of Style handbook for writing help—students. Evidently, the book was not popular enough with the audience to justify continued publication.

What students already knew, and what a publisher learned the hard way twenty years ago, is still relevant. Digital texts are a completely different animal from print documents, and equating them doesn’t work. Furthermore, two decades of evolution and proliferation of digital forms have intensified this hard-won lesson. Now, the ways in which digital texts themselves are used remarkably differ as well.

The demographics of a target audience largely influence how a text is used. This fact may seem obvious, yet many writers continue to compose digital content that does not take audience into consideration. An audience-first approach to writing for the web can reveal nuances among user demographics, and how those demographics affect audiences’ expectations of and purposes for digital texts.

While composing web content, a writer might consider the primary audience’s

  • age,
  • purpose for viewing the content,
  • prior knowledge about the topic, and
  • access to technology,

to name just a few examples.

An audience-first approach is important during every communication act. This can be seen, for instance, when a writer must decide whether to create a web page that scrolls. Once a deal-breaker in web design, scrolling now is not only acceptable but preferred in certain rhetorical situations. Even so, scrolling web content is successful only if the target audience possesses the hardware and software capability to load heavy content, and if the audience already has an expectation that certain types of sites will involve scrolling.

A web page with infinite scrolling, where content steadily loads on the page as a user scrolls, is typical of social media newsfeeds. (See an example here.) Digital natives who are fluent in social media would find infinite scrolling to be a familiar feature. However, digital immigrants, whose online experience predates social media, may remember when web pages with finite content were the norm. This demographic might be less willing to scroll for an indeterminate amount of time, especially if they are seeking specific content. For a web writer, then, deciding whether a page should scroll would depend on the demographic that makes up most of the target audience.

Other types of scrolling also emphasize the importance of prioritizing audience when writing for the web. Fixed long scrolling, for instance, pins some content in place on a web page, while users can scroll through other content on the page. (See an example here.) Because some parts of a page will always be in the user’s sight, a web writer must analyze the audience’s priorities to determine which content to pin. For example, audience members who qualify for Medicare health insurance (generally, U.S. citizens over age 65) regularly visit medical insurance websites to learn about the newest changes to their coverage. Some users will expect key information to always be at the same place on a page. However, if the target audience is willing to scroll to find certain information, a writer has more freedom to place content in a variety of locations.

For this reason, fixed long scrolling also is an example of how audiences may take different meanings from the same page. Audiences who primarily value pinned content will have a different experience than users who surf widely throughout a page. Repeat customers on a shopping website, for example, might seek quick access to a “buy it again” link, while new, prospective customers will browse the site’s products.

Although parallax scrolling has been used by web writers for over ten years, growing competition from sophisticated app designs has increased the use of this type of scrolling on web pages. Parallax scrolling enables a page’s background images to move more slowly than images in the foreground, giving a sense of animated depth to the page. (See an example here.) While the visual effect is intriguing, again, a web writer should analyze the target audience to ensure that such scrolling is necessary. In fact, parallax scrolling has triggered symptoms in users with a tendency to suffer motion sickness.

Rather than opting for a scrolling design because it’s flashy, web writers should always consider the user above all. When The New York Times used parallax scrolling to publish the feature “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” the piece’s interactive, animated graphics generated considerable buzz. “Snow Fall” also generated controversy. Some readers, accustomed to the text and still images traditional of most credible news sites, questioned whether the dazzle of parallax scrolling drew focus from journalistic integrity. Other audiences could not access the feature because they lacked data bandwidth.

As with the question of scrolling, all aspects of web writing should take an audience-first approach. When writers do so, their web content will be successful whether the design is conventional or cutting-edge.