When a director makes a movie, she can be pretty confident that the audience will see it from the beginning straight through to the end.
When I write a book, I have the same luxury. That’s usually the case when I give a speech as well. It’s awfully frustrating to be giving a talk to a dozen people and then have the head guy walk in ten minutes late… now what do I do? Do I start over and bore the people kind enough to be on time (though possibly succeed in my argument to the head guy) or do I press on? If the beginning wasn’t important, I wouldn’t have wasted all that time on it!
Major advertisers have the expectation that they don’t need to keep reintroducing themselves. People know who Coke and Nike are. The new ads can pick up in the middle without explaining exactly what “Mountain Dew” is.
Unlike books and movies and speeches and sales pitches, it’s pretty obvious that blogs and websites don’t work that way. The traffic for almost all blogs is growing, in some cases quite quickly. Some websites double in traffic every month or two. My blogometer tells me that about half of the people who read my blog each week have never been here before.
Hence the dilemma.
Blog writing is different than almost any other sort of exposition. Some people have been with you for years. They understand your conventions, your shorthands and your biases. They know you’ve written a few books, appeared as a child actor in Star Trek or have a deep and abiding hatred for cats. You can drop a few hints and they get it.
The rest of your readers are left clueless.
Which leads to the squeaky wheel problem. Among your newbies are several people who won’t hesitate to send you an email, post a comment or leave in a huff. They don’t get it and they want you to know they don’t get it.
Your inclination, if you’re at all like me, is to have that person’s voice in the back of your head every time you post an entry or design a page. “But what about Fred, who just got here?” If you’re working in an organization, the voice will be even louder. Your peers will remind you of the Freds of the world every time they hear from them.
Starbucks doesn’t start over every time someone walks in, and neither does your church. Great websites don’t explain every little icon in big type–they give newbies a chance to figure it out and they let the regulars use a tool they enjoy.
Some of the most popular blogs and websites on the web are hard to understand the first time you get there. Not hard for hard’s sake, but hard because there’s a lot of power in a little space and explaining it all would actually make it work worse.
If I was always trying to catch people up, I’d end every post by pointing to my lens. But I won’t, because then you’d stop reading, wouldn’t you?
One opportunity that’s underused is the idea of using cookies to treat returning visitors differently than newbies. It’s more work at first, but it can offer two experiences to two different sorts of people.
Nothing grows forever, and no doubt, one day in the next decade the bulk of your readers will be caught up. But until then, the calculus of starting in the middle is always going to penalize–at least a little–the folks who just showed up, the folks who have been there for a while, or the writer. Just something to keep in mind when you are building your UI or writing your next missive.