Back in the 90s when the Net was just becoming more than a fun curiosity, I worked with a startup that sought to distribute education information online and somehow turn a profit. We had ongoing spirited debates about what web elements would eventually put the enterprise in the black or make it appealing to investors. Was it content? Community (pre-social media)? Ecommerce? Some next big thing no one had thought of yet (like social media)?
In the end, it always came back to content. And that’s still true today. Sure, great design, technology, and discoverability are critical for an effective author website. So is the ease with which content can be shared. But no matter how slick or functional your site, success comes down to the quality of the content; with a single click of the mouse or a swipe of the finger, visitors can leave your site for other more compelling online experiences.
So let’s get down to the key issue: what kind of content should be on your site, and how much is enough.
Let’s say you have 1,549 items you could potentially upload to your author site. They include high school prom photos, podcasts of your attempts to sing in the shower, your 25-page Q&A that includes details such as your favorite color bath mat, a barely legible copy of an article called “Pumpkin Day” that you wrote for your grade school newspaper, your grandmother’s recipe for fruitcake, and rejection slips from the first 27 agents you contacted. How much of this should your site’s visitors see?
Probably none of it.
Okay, the above list is hyperbolic. But it’s not that far off.
Some authors could fill the equivalent of a digital 18-wheeler with enough content to send their most committed fans running for the hills. At the other end of the info spectrum, there are authors who won’t spend more than seven nanoseconds generating core information, let alone creating tailored, compelling content. And remember, it’s great content that helps build brands and sell books. Their sites tend to be more like online dust jackets than vehicles for engaging website visitors.
Fortunately, it’s easy to create a balance between overwhelming and underwhelming visitors to your book website. You find that point if you apply the following litmus tests to your content. The tests can help you keep your site focused and lean, yet deep enough to provide a rich user experience. Ask yourself these questions and keep it real; remember, nothing is so precious that it can’t be axed or reworked:
- Does the content add value and pique interest in your book? Relevant photo galleries and multimedia elements are great. Details of the story behind the story can create a sense of intrigue and a longing for more. Explain how you hatched the plot for your novel. Or, for a non-fiction work, perhaps describe your research or interview methodology. Also, don’t be afraid to give away a chapter or two—if viewers don’t buy your book because their interest in your work is completely satisfied by a couple of chapters, then you have a larger problem.
- Does the content give insights into what makes you tick as an author? A Q&A that reveals what influences you and informs your work is great. Some authors publish a “just the facts, ma’am” bio as well as a more fanciful bio that shows their dreams, aspirations, failures, and successes. It comes down to how comfortable you are about revealing yourself to the world. Remember, though, there’s a line between showing who you are and providing too much info. Find that happy medium and create a blend of information that elicits curiosity about you as an author and establishes your personality and credibility.
- Does the content beg to be shared? A tremendous amount of web traffic is driven by the social networking platforms. Is the content likely to be of interest to a wider audience? Would someone want to subscribe to the blog on your site? Would they want to add your blog to their blogroll? The latter is more likely to happen if your blog has some kind of through-line and point of view (it can still be spontaneous and miscellaneous—just make sure your posts have a distinctive voice). And include functionality that make it a breeze to share blog posts and other content. If content is king, ease of sharing is the reigning queen.
- Does the site create stickiness, community, and increase the likelihood of repeat visits? The best website content is frequently updated and it keeps readers coming back for more. If your book site is loaded with static, low-traffic pages, head back to the lab and create new content. Test, evaluate, iterate, and reiterate—that’s the formula for success. Certain core information doesn’t have to change or emanate razzle-dazzle vibes. But there has to be a reason for people to return to the site. An integral, active blog is a great way to inject ongoing fresh content. Contests and new free downloads work, too. Get creative!
- Does the content meet the viewer’s needs or your own? This is a corollary to the prior litmus test. The website is, of course, about you. But it’s not the equivalent of a self-portrait that you hang on the wall because you like it. A website succeeds—builds brand and cultivates buyers—because it’s visitor-centric. Use your web analytics to identify trends and tailor content to your visitors’ interests. This can be painful if you don’t like what you see. Everything—even content that you’re certain will be a surefire hit—needs to be put under the microscope. Inside jokes (stories, photos, videos) that nobody understands won’t help you achieve your online goals. If you keep your visitors in mind and fill your site with materials customized to suit their needs and interests, you’re aiming at the right target.
Finally, remember that readers pay for your books, and they have a vested interest in finishing the work once they’ve started it. But visiting your website is a decidedly different proposition. Viewers are doing you a favor by spending time there, and you have to earn their ongoing patronage. Yes, your author website is part of your business, even if you’re not directly selling books on it. To gain that patronage, you have to capture their attention. And as many pundits have noted, attention is the currency of the digital age.
It all boils down to a simple principle: make your site a worthwhile investment of your visitors’ precious time. That’s one of the major keys to success for any online venture.