The myth of relevance

How can I appeal to my audience? How can I attract readers? When you’re writing a blog, or really anything for publication, it’s tempting to focus on drawing readers in. Tagging posts strategically, trying to be important and relevant, appearing seeker-friendly. I am guilty of this. When I post a YouTube video, I try to think of all the possible tags I could file it under, to attract views. I think some of this instinct springs from a culture of Internet memes. But then you see a video with a few thousand views, and not all that many tags, really. Just the obvious ones. It’s the quality content and the word-of-mouth publicity that made it popular.

This and Nathaniel’s post on audience have got me thinking and somewhat re-working my approach. In fact, this is an attempt at a short to medium post that puts forth a thought for consideration. Now there is, of course, an appropriate way to strategize and target your audience. That’s what this post is about. But targeting your audience doesn’t mean broadening your appeal1 so much as knowing your audience, like Nat said, and producing good content.

As should be apparent, this is really just a good business model — it applies to blogging almost informally. Companies like Apple, Inc. understand this.2 Apple has a niche market and focuses on content that resonates within this group, to the extent that Jobs has what is termed a “cult following” [warning: link contains some language]. After all, Macs just work. Nevertheless, Apple is also a good example of a company that expanded its focus to great advantage (read: iPhone).

Conversely, Microsoft wants the whole market — go big or go home. Call it biting off more than you can chew, taking in too much territory, or whatever; but Microsoft tries to cover a broad range of user needs, hardware manufacturers and platforms, and comes up short on the quality front. Not content to focus on what it does best (using the term generously), Microsoft is constantly competing with Sony, Apple, Google, Gmail and Linux. And — whether it’s gaming consoles, hardware, media players, operating systems, communication services or search engines — you get a lineup of products doomed to eternal second place.

I could regale you with talk of BSODs, driver headaches and viruses, Windows ME and Vista, but the goal was merely to demonstrate what I mean by “the myth of relevance.” Just getting the most customers or the biggest audience is not an end unto itself. A streamlined, focused business model and quality control builds and retains a loyal consumer following. Spyderco is a good example. With only 30 employees and direct input from owner/founder Sal Glesser, there is a personal attention to quality and focus on customer relations that makes a Spyderco owner feel included, as it were. One wants the same sort of connection with a blog audience.

Finally, one more application: churches. There are, sadly, a lot of churches that would cut off their doctrinal arm to be “relevant.” They are the seeker-friendly, spiritual-milk, easy-believism variety. As Pastor Terry Tollefson is fond of saying, if the young people aren’t coming, break out the pizza, guitars, low lights and couches. Preach what people like to hear. Tickle ears. Unfortunately, they — just like the girl with mismatched shoes (one Converse and maybe a fur-trimmed boot is about right), striped leggings, outlandish hair and the “raccoon” style eyeliner — are pitching an indiscriminate appeal for attention. But attention is not an end to itself. You want the right kind of attention, the right kind of publicity. To quote Pastor Doug Wilson in a related vein, “Young Christian people should seek to become the kind of person that the kind of person they would want to marry would want to marry.”

Churches should want to attract people because of the strong preaching of law and condemnation in tension with grace and love, the unity, fellowship and accountability. The robust doctrine of Psalms and liturgy. The corporate-ness of Christ’s body. If someone is repelled by any of these things, that’s the way it should be — that’s the only hope for them. Diluting the truth until no one feels convicted is doing no one any favors. Taking the potency from worship and the doctrine from the songs is what, in other venues, would be called false advertising.

The church, properly functioning, shows people where they stand in relation to the body of Christ. When this is not done, people either discover spiritual meat at some point and have no taste for it, or settle into a warm, fuzzy, God-isn’t-about-guilt version of Christianity. (Just as long as I don’t have to do anything uncomfortable, like loving unlovable old people in nursing homes or confessing sins or letting grudges go.) On rare occasion, they realize they aren’t getting fed and look for a body to keep them accountable, words they can chew on — the Word himself.

So then, what I’ve called the “myth” of relevance is the notion that attracting attention, broadening appeal or increasing numbers is anything to aim for. At best, you will raise lukewarm interest in your lukewarm product. At worst, you will fill the Church with people who wouldn’t be there if they knew the way is narrow, and deter those who would only be there if they did. If I have spent time and digital ink on this last point, it’s because I’m serious. In any of these applications, there are some people to whom you don’t want to be relevant, and especially when it concerns the sanctification of Christ’s bride.

But, as always, that sanctification should flow out through all our endeavors, even our blogs. And yes, as a short to medium post, this is a fail. Oh well, semper reformanda and all that.

  1. Although there is a place for this, but it comes in time; focus on the audience you have and build from there.
  2. While I personally disagree with a lot of Apple’s philosophy, there is no disputing Jobs’s business acumen and Apple’s success.
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