The need to ‘know your reader’is a battle-hardened clichÃ©, but it’s more important now than ever – and it’s never been easier to discover their interests. Before we only had the blunt instruments of reader surveys and focus panels, but the web has opened up vast opportunities.
The trick is to pick and choose the right tool for the job. You also need to know when to ignore results and when to be brave and make changes. These don’t need to be wholesale – maybe you just need to tweak your headline or the story angle.
Finally, if you’re a freelance pitching an idea, you can use some of these tools to researchand ultimately sell your article. It’s all very well believing you’ve got the right idea, but having evidence to back it up makes the sell much more convincing.
Plug in up to six terms and Google will map out their relative volume – based on how often they’re entered as search terms – over the past few years, past few months, even the past 30 days.
By default, Google will give you the whole world’s results, but it’s easy to drill down to the UK and then down to its regions. The benefits are obvious, but make sure you pick the right word or phrase to represent your interest area as your readers may not be using the same words, as you.
Your own website
The secret weapon of every website’s armoury is its own results. Firstly, you know the biggest stories; at pcpro.co.uk, we noticed a trend last summer that every broadband story we wrote got several thousand hits. On the back of this, we ran a big broadband feature in the magazine – The Great Broadband Con – and grabbed more market share on the news-stand than ever before. The second weapon is your own search results. On PC Pro, it’s often the first sign that a new technology is about to become a hit.
The great advantage of alexa.com is that it’s free. Its strength is that it will give you a guide – albeit a very basic one – on how popular two or three sites are compared to each other. This helps you track your competition, to see how they’re doing right now and – if they’ve suddenly picked up in popularity – to track when the step change occurred. If it’s a switch of tack (a new blog, for example) is there something you could do to match it?
The other tools here are passive; you’re trawling through a set of things that have already happened. But sometimes it makes sense to know what your readers think of articles, concepts and, in PC Pro’s case, technologies they haven’t even read about yet. We use demographix.com, but there are plenty more services available. The key is to make your survey quick and focused; make sure you’re asking the right questions.
Finally, there are tools like ComScore and Hitwise. They’re expensive, but there are compelling reasons for publishers to make the investment. Hitwise lets you instantly analyse your site’s strengths and weaknesses compared to the opposition: What search terms are they getting more results from than you? ComScore uses a panel of 50,000 UK users and gives an instant measure of how popular your site is compared to the opposition. Handy in the absence of ABCe results, but biased towards domestic browsing, as 80 per cent of the panel are home, rather than business users.