You have urgent questions that need answers:
Why are we losing circulation?
How do readers feel about our format?
What changes do our readers want?
What issues are most important to our
How can we show a potential advertiser that a
large segment of our readership values its products?
These are the types of questions that can be answered with
readership surveys. But, to get answers that are valid, that pass the
credibility test, the survey must be properly conducted. Here are some
Choose the right survey method. There are four basic approaches
to gathering the opinions of readers: focus groups, telephone surveys, mail
surveys, and in-magazine surveys. Each method is appropriate for particular
Focus groups are ideal for in-depth
exploration of readers' opinions when the specific questions you want to ask
are unclear. For example, the publisher of a retirement-related publication
wanted a deeper understanding of how readers felt about the magazine. Several
focus groups were held in which the participants read portions of the
publication and were then asked their general opinions. The publishing team
watched the groups from behind a one-way window and were able to gain valuable
Mail surveys are most appropriate when
you want close control over who receives the survey. For example, if you have
advertisers who want to know more about the purchasing patterns of a particular
subset of your readers, a survey mailed to only that subset should do the
trick. Because mail surveys are addressed to specific individuals, they
generally yield better response rates than in-magazine surveys. And you can
optimize the response rate by sending a pre-survey mailing to announce the
survey, and a post-survey mailing to remind participants to complete the
Telephone surveys are often a good
compromise between a mail survey and a focus group. Interviews can target
specific individuals (whether they are current readers or not). And follow-up
questions can be asked for further clarification. However, such surveys, are
very labor intensive and do not produce the quantifiable data obtained with
either mail or in-magazine surveys.
In-magazine surveys are an inexpensive
and easy way to reach all your readers, but response rates are typically low,
and the results are not statistically representative of your entire readership.
Using the results for PR purposes, therefore, is usually not possible. On the
other hand, this can be an ideal way to generate reader interest in a
particular topic. Engineering News-Record, a national McGraw-Hill title,
conducts periodic in-magazine surveys asking readers about career issues. The
results are then printed in a special advertising section funded by recruiting
firms. And women's magazines, fitness magazines, and health and lifestyle
magazines all profit from editorial that is based on responses to in-magazine
surveys on topics of high interest to their readers.
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Keep it simple. Mailed surveys or in-magazine surveys
should be kept to a single page. Questions should be closed-ended, since
open-ended or fill-in-the-blanks questions are more difficult for readers to
complete -- and cumbersome to analyze. Rating scales, checklists or
true-or-false questions work best. It is also important to use the same
response scale throughout the survey. It is difficult, for example, for readers
to alternate between a five-point rating scale and a ranking scale. For mailed
surveys, readers should be provided with a self addressed, postage-paid reply
Ask interesting questions first. Studies have shown that
asking the questions that readers find the most interesting at the beginning of
the survey increases the chances that readers will complete the survey and
return it to you.
Don't get too personal. Respondents are often
understandably unwilling to give their names, addresses, phone numbers or
incomes. However, if this information is vital to the purpose of the survey,
ask for it at the end of the survey. Respondents are more likely to answer
these questions once they have psychologically committed to the survey.
Offer an incentive. Respondent incentives can increase
response rates. There are many different approaches to incentives to
respondents. One publication we work with offers a copy of the survey results
as well as a chance to win $500. Sometimes we offer to contribute $25 to a
well-respected charity for each completed survey we receive. Placing a $1 bill
in a mail survey can also improve the response rate.
Plan the data analysis ahead of time. If, for example,
you want to know how three different subsets of your readers respond to a
particular set of questions, print the survey in three different colors. That
way, you will be able to analyze the data for each group without compromising
the confidentiality of respondents. Or, if you plan to include any open-ended
questions, make certain you have the available administrative resources to
categorize or type the written comments.
Just as important as knowing what to do is knowing what not to
do. In terms of reader research, there are three big pitfalls to be avoided.
- Don't assume you have obtained a
statistically representative sample.
Respondents to in-magazine surveys are
self-selecting, and as such can bias results. Although, there are some
weighting strategies that can be used to correct for sampling bias, a mail
survey is better suited for obtaining statistically valid results. In any
event, plan ahead: Know who you want to sample -- readers, readers and
non-readers, specific subsets of your readers, and so on -- and design your
survey to reach them.
- Don't allow readers to stuff the ballot
Unless you take some precautions, the results
of in-magazine readership surveys can be altered by readers. State clearly that
photocopies of survey forms will not be accepted, and that each reader may
submit only one survey. Consider the following potential problem. A popular
consumer-oriented magazine published an annual survey to assess the attitudes
of its readers toward different insurance companies. One company was rated
consistently low on claim service. The company's CEO, who was fighting mad,
asked his research director how many magazines the company would have to buy to
dramatically improve its claims rating. In the end, the CEO decided not to
stuff the ballot box -- but he could easily have done so.
- Don't ignore reader feedback.
If you ask your readers for their opinions
about any aspect of your magazine, take what they say very seriously. Listen to
them if they want change. If you allow your survey results to waste away on a
dusty shelf, you may soon find yourself and your magazine competing for space
on the same spot.
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