Reaching your audience – questioning who, where and how

I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘how to reach your audience?’ after being a panelist on a discussion about this question at the National Creative Writing Graduates Fair in Manchester earlier this month.

To be or not to be online at x/y/z…is not the answer. Or perhaps it is. In truth, I don’t think there is any one or even several definitive answers, just lots of possibilities waiting to be explored – with each individual writer finding, or creating, their own way based partly on who they are.

The breadth of the actual topic ‘reaching your audience’ is nothing to the potential breadth of a writer’s audience. But in reality, as in other areas of life, we all have to work within the limits of our resources and time. In this blog post then, I’m going to concentrate on a few of the many possible aspects, just as writers in practice are likely to have to choose where, how and when to focus their audience-reaching efforts.

Some of my thoughts here were inspired by questions asked at the graduate fair, and by the excellent advice and examples offered by my fellow panelists Tom Ashton (from Kate Nash Literary Agency, Kate Feld (director of Openstories) and panel chairman Joe Stretch. But this post – along with any unappreciated advice herein! – is of my own devising.

One early consideration for a writer might be to look at how and what they write, in order to decide whether they’re going to start with the audience or the written words. By this, I mean, are you a writer who knows what they want to write but then need to find the audience for it? Or a writer who, having identified a target audience, can then write directly for those readers? Or perhaps you can combine a mixture of the two?

When I write, for example, it’s often in response to particular inspiration or creative spark. In these cases, once the poem or flash is written and properly edited, I will then try to find the ideal home (audience) for it, such as researching magazines and websites that might publish it. This may involve some editing or tweaking to perfect it for that market (audience) but I’m not writing directly for that audience.

Other times, I might respond to a submission theme or competition call out or a commission brief. In these cases, the audience (although not guaranteed) is implied. Another version of this is, for example, writing this blogpost. I am writing it specifically for other writers interested in this topic, for people who’ve already shown an interest in this through Comma Press and the National Creative Writing Graduates Fair. (Once written, I will therefore be linking it back to Comma Press and the fair in the hope of ensuring that it reaches as much of that audience as possible.)

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While publication through a press, magazine, website…hopefully helps to connect with an audience – the readers of these books and journals – there are lots of other possible options for linking more directly with an audience.

Twitter, Facebook, blogs, youtube, vimeo, instagram, flickr, linked in, soundcloud, personal websites…maybe you’ll recognise all of these, maybe you’ll know about something about a few of them but be perplexed by the rest. They’re all various kinds of social media networking and micro publishing sites but only just a very limited sample selection of those available in different areas of the world. (China for example has its own versions of many western sites that aren’t allowed in China.) The range of such sites is potentially overwhelming and this just the internet. There are also more traditional avenues to audiences such as bookshops, libraries, spoken word events, poetry/literary groups and literature festivals.

These all have certain things in common though. They all involved interaction or engagement with a potential audience ( as individuals or through online writing/reading literary sites or groups on Facebook or # tags on twitter identifying common interests or themes such as #poetry, #flash…). This might be summed up as networking. But it needn’t feel or come across that way if it’s an activity that’s focused around a genuine shared love/interest in writing/reading/creating and one that works reciprocally/brings mutual benefits.

So, given limited time, how do you choose which of these routes to explore?

Try, try and try again

Part of finding what works for you and your audience may be research to identify which of the possibilities are more likely to reach your target audience or the widest selection of your target audience. I’ve mentioned ‘target’ and ‘market’ a few times now – these terms may be starting to sound a bit more business or marketing orientated rather than writing for the love or art of it. If so, don’t let this language put you off. If you don’t have a background in web analytics or marketing research, it may actually simply be a case of personal trial and error, of spending a little time looking at website or blogs, going along to a few spoken word nights, reading what other people tweet etc.

As you start to meet and talk to people, word of mouth is likely to come in to play. People will be talking about other events, where they go as readers/audience members or writers trying to reach an audience. At some point then, the trial and error method will probably move from simply researching/watching/reading/listening to actually actively engaging or trying out some of these things as a way of reaching your own audiences.

Something I’ve found useful as part of this trial and error process is what in more formal/business/planning terms amounts to the first two parts of SWOT analysis – identifying your strengths and weaknesses. (The O and T are opportunities and threats, which are also worth being aware of, and actively looking out for the former.)

When I talk about strengths, I don’t just mean writing talents but also personality features and wider skills. I also mean the things that you enjoy. Then play to your strengths, and either try to convert your weaknesses to strengths or find a way around them. (After all, when it comes to getting creative in finding ways around things, as writers, we already have a head start!)

Readings & Performance

every-book-leaves-its-traces-crossFor example, these days, if you consider yourself a ‘page poet’ (I use the term loosely) and/or an introvert, the thought of connecting with your audience through a live reading may feel daunting.

Having decided to face the fear and try it anyway, you may find that you actually love it. In any case, there are a range of techniques that might make the experience easier, as well as other alternatives to live readings.

For example, I’ve found distancing techniques can sometimes be helpful – so that when I read the person up there performing or reading isn’t me, it’s a donned reading/performing poet persona. Another ‘trick’ might be to think very carefully about what type of setting you’re most comfortable reading in and only do those that work for you. Considerations here might include the ideal size of event (and audience) to the potentially very different atmosphere of reading at a highbrow literary festival compared to a local open mic or a small reading staged for friends and family rather than the general public. Smaller audience events may mean you’d need to do more of them to potentially reach the same size audience, but better a good reading that you enjoy than a larger reading at which you’re uncomfortable and therefore don’t engage with the audience. And choosing select events rather than reading at everything may help make your readings special and encourage people to attend as it may be a while before they get the chance to hear you again.

For some people, arriving early to allow time to chat to people before the evening starts might help turn that event from a reading in front of strangers to a reading for new friends. Many audiences, particularly perhaps at open mics, tend to appreciate and respond more after the warmth of laughter. If, like me, you rarely write humorous poems, there are other ways round this. The first is to have the few or only humorous poem with you as a back-up. The second is to build humour into the short introductions or spiel between sharing your actual poems.

If you’re still nervous, then, on top of these possibilities, there are other ways of playing to your strengths/bypassing your weaknesses. If you’re reluctant to read your work but don’t mind talking about it, are their opportunities for taking a more Q & A style event to local writers/readers group or interest groups, if you’re writing on a particular theme. Alternatively, instead of live performance, perhaps try some recorded audio, a podcast or video performance. This could even become a collaborative project with a filmmaker.

Or perhaps there’s an element to your work that would make it interesting to a local acting group or someone who likes performing or entertaining. When I originally sat down to turn my poetry collection The Magnetic Diaries into a solo poetry show, I envisaged it as a festival-slot-length reading with a narrative thread. Having turned it into a script, and submitted it to the Write On Festival at Hereford’s The Courtyard (awareness of an opportunity!), I eventually ended up with a director and actress willing to take it on as a full piece of poetry theatre (taking it on an ACE-funded tour and two-week run at Edinburgh Festival Fringe)! (Thank you Reaction Theatre Makers, director Tiffany Hosking and actress Vey Straker).

So, the internet…

a-sunlit-heartI’ve spent a lot of words so far on poetry and performance. But the same considerations of audience size, the atmosphere/environment that you’re most comfortable in and finding ways of adapting yourself to that environment or potentially that environment to you are also relevant when it comes to exploring the web and how different internet sites and options might work for you in reaching your audience. Likewise also with finding extra ways of catching your audience’s eye. I’ve already mentioned audio and video as options for engaging with an audience beyond the page. Combining images with words is another possibility that can work well on the web – whether the artwork is yours or something produced in collaboration with another artist.

The theory behind trying things for yourself and playing to your strengths is that a) these things can be very personal (and a two-way relationship between the individual writer and their audience members) so there is no black and white ‘this is the way to do it’; b) life is too short for doing too many things that you don’t really enjoy unless you absolutely have to. The second is that I know it can take me ages (and be very draining) to get round to doing things that I don’t want to do, whereas I have almost unlimited energy, motivation and focus for the things that I enjoy doing. This makes them much easier to sustain and fills them with a natural genuineness and enthusiasm.

Thinking even further out of the box

I love writing. I started as a journalist, moved into writing short fiction (2000-8000) words, then poetry, my poetry-play, The Magnetic Diaries, flash fiction and finally a novella, Kaleidoscope, due out early 2017. In audience terms, this might also be considered hedging my bets!

Like audio, video or combining words with pictures, trying a different genre can be rewarding as a writer, as well as potentially engaging further with your existing audience or finding new audiences for your work.

But if trying a different kind of writing doesn’t appeal, you know where you are with performance and the internet, then why not look at more unusual ways of bringing your work to people. Where does your audience go in their spare time? Can you reach them in routine places, even the most mundane from bus/train station to office to supermarket noticeboard?

Over the years my poems have featured on buses, poetry trails, phone apps, screen savers, poetry films, a café mural and in the Blackpool Illuminations. Of these, I can only truly claim the phone app as my own idea. The rest all came about either as opportunities discovered or opportunities offered to me through being part of online and real-life writing communities.

Other more unusual projects that I’ve heard of include poems in pub windows, guerilla posted on lamp-posts and trees, or turned into beer mats. Innovative and fun ways to reach audiences can also be found at festivals, such as poems written on demand for take-away or in portable sheds. Meanwhile, the Emergency Poet, Deb Alma, brings other people’s poetry to new audiences by making poetry prescriptions for passers-by stopping for a consultation in her 1970’s ambulance. What other interests drive you besides writing? And can you combine the two to create a striking and fun way to reach your audience?

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Go compare.sarah

See below, for some example of what does, and doesn’t work (!), on various different internet sites – as I have learned through trial and error!

Website (profile building; content on writing & actual writing): www.sarah-james.co.uk

Website blog (active; content on writing; being hosted on a personal website, it lacks the interaction possible on blogsite where you can follow other bloggers): http://www.sarah-james.co.uk/?page_id=7

WordPress blog (redundant; content on writing/life & interaction possible through following/commenting): https://sarahjameswrites.wordpress.com/

Linked In (profile-building): https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarah-james-2127521b

Twitter (public, content on writing/life; micro-writing/taster snippets/photo-poetry; interacting): https://twitter.com/Sarah_James ; twitter handle @Sarah_James

Facebook for Sarah James (mostly automatic posts forwarded from twitter, therefore currently limited interaction, posts public): https://www.facebook.com/sarahaleavesley

Facebook for Sarah Leavesley (content on writing/life, interacting, posts mostly restricted to viewing by friends only): https://www.facebook.com/sarah.leavesley

Facebook for 21stcenturypoetsmakeitnew (public, no longer active collaborative poetry project): https://www.facebook.com/21stcenturypoetsmakeitnew-172744752744607/

Tumblr (public, writing in picture form, currently not active here): http://sarahjamespoetry.tumblr.com/

Instagram (public, photos & photo-poetry; intermittent usage currently): https://www.instagram.com/s.a.leavesley/ (NB posting of photos done through mobile phone app not website.)

You Tube (poetryfilm, interaction is possible but currently mostly unused by me): https://www.youtube.com/user/SarahJamespoet

Vimeo (similar to You Tube but possibly considered more ‘arty’): https://vimeo.com/sarahjamespoet

Soundcloud (audiopoetry): https://soundcloud.com/lifeislikeacherrytree

This article was first published on Comma Press: part 1 and part 2.