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Surveys: What're They Good For?

Posted on Thursday, September 28, 2017 at 2:49 PM

A rundown of perspectives from several editors.

By William Dunkerley

Editors gave us off-the-cuff comments on their experiences with surveys. We were interested in when they last conducted one, whether the responses produced any surprises, and if concrete changes were made at their publications as a result of the latest survey.

PT in Motion

Editor and lead editor/writer Donald Tepper told us his goal is to conduct a survey every three years. His last one was five years ago, however.

He explains:

"Our publisher is a professional association, and the association is constantly sending out surveys (membership services, legislative, etc.) to members. For the past two years, the association has deemed other surveys to be more important than ours."

What does Tepper seek from his surveys?

"Broadly speaking, we want to know what our members are interested in reading.

"We ask questions about which departments and columns they most like, and which they like the least. We ask about different themes of feature articles -- again, what they like most and what they like least. We want to know whether they prefer reading our magazine to our competitors'. How much of each magazine do they read?

"Because we've got a very diverse membership (educators, clinicians, and researchers is one way to break it down; another is students, early practitioners, and mature practitioners; another is different job titles and licensing criteria -- physical therapists vs. physical therapist assistants), we try to analyze the responses from these different groups.

"We also want to determine what types of information readers want to receive from the magazine, versus other means of communication (emails, newsletters, webinars, etc.)."

Tepper's results came in pretty much as expected. Others in his organization may have been looking for different results, he remarked. But overall they seem satisfied (or even pleased), he concluded.

PT in Motion has undergone a number of changes, but just in part as a result of his survey. Tepper explains:

"We've allowed some of our articles to run longer. A long time ago (15-plus years ago), our features used to be quite long -- 4,000–5,000 words, sometimes. Then there was an attempt to shorten the features. First to about 3,500 words. Then less. Then less. Partly, it was to save pages. Partly, it was because of the perceived effect of online articles, which are measured in the hundreds of words, not the thousands.

"When we got down below 2,500, we started getting some mild complaints noting that the articles weren't in-depth enough. By the time we were down to 2,000 words, there was some clear unhappiness from some of our readers. We're now averaging approximately 2,800 words, with some at 4,000 or longer. We came to realize that a magazine is well suited to long-form pieces."

There are two main points Tepper recommends to editors who are considering a survey.

--Don't let the questionnaire get too long, lest responses drop off.

--Don't just focus on your own magazine; also probe the other ways in which readers receive information.

PM Magazine

At ICMA, publications director Ann Mahoney uses surveys not only for editorial feedback, but also to confirm that readers of PM Magazine are predominantly in her organization's target group: decision makers for local government purchasing. Her most recent survey was last summer (2017).

One overwhelming impression she received from the survey is that "young professionals are not sufficiently represented." The magazine's editor will address that issue, she says.

Another thing: "We received more comments requesting in-depth treatment of topics than we've had in past surveys. In the past comments were strongly in favor of short, practical, bullet-organized articles. In this Twitter era, this result (i.e., wanting more in-depth articles) was surprising."

County News

Executive editor Beverly Schlotterbech last surveyed in 2012. She wanted to gauge reader interest in switching to digital-only. (County News has been published in both print and digital versions.) The answer? "There is more support for digital-only than expected, but significant groups within our readership prefer print." As a result, no changes have been made.

UC Magazine

John Bach, managing editor of UC Magazine, a university publication, looks into what impact his magazine actually has on readers. He reports, "We ask very specific questions about what the issue prompted them to do. For example, did it inspire them to discuss the university with others, donate, or recommend a potential student?" Bach's last survey was conducted last March.

He says, "There are definite trends from our surveys that have influenced our content types. For example, readers have indicated how much they like clean and open design, so we've begun using larger images in our spreads. Also, our readers are really into campus history and images of campus, so we try to include those types of favorite content in each issue."

Bach strongly advocates that editors conduct surveys. He elucidated, "If you aren't surveying your readers, you are missing out on an enormous opportunity. How else do you know if you are meeting reader needs with your publication?"

Vacation Better

Senior editor/director of pubs Kathryn Mullan did her publication's last survey in 2014. Her biggest takeaway was disappointment in the level of response. It was less than 3 percent.

She bemoans, "That survey was a free, online barter agreement we did with a member of ours. It yielded meager results. For the previous survey in 2007, we paid a firm $10,000 to handle it for us (mail and online) and got much better feedback and response -- with data we could actually use. My advice to others is to invest in this type of firm to handle the survey for you; you get what you pay for!"

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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