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Are Constant Surveys Time-Worthy?

Posted on Wednesday, November 29, 2017 at 1:26 PM

A reader's question: Why should I take time for interminable surveys when I'm struggling to get out each issue?

By William Dunkerley

Q. How do you think I'm going to find time to conduct some kind of reader survey every month? Your suggestion to "Start a Perpetual Reader Survey" is a sweet idea. But who's got the time for that? I edit a monthly print magazine. Our online counterpart gets updated every week. From the time I arrive at work early each morning until I leave at night, I'm fighting against deadlines just to meet my basic responsibilities. My staff works hard and there's no time being wasted. Meanwhile, if we miss our deadlines and an issue does not go out, I'll be out of a job. Please tell me how the idea of dong constant surveys is worth my time?

A. To invoke a popular Bill Clintonism, "I feel your pain!" The job of editor is vastly underrated and misunderstood in terms of the pressures of deadlines and constant demands for productivity. We work in a very unforgiving environment. So I can understand your sense of frustration when someone suggests that you take on yet another task.

The "Perpetual Reader Survey" that I floated last issue is not a very time-intensive thing, though. Once you set up a system for initiating the survey, we're talking minutes, not hours, to solicit the feedback. If you can't squeeze that into your busy schedule, perhaps some creative solution could be found. Would a staff member be willing to take it on as an outside chore for a stipend? Or can you get an intern to work on it? Perhaps there's even a reader who might take it on as a volunteer.

Is the time requirement really the bottom-line issue for you, though? In many cases, the prospect of any change in a work routine is automatically met with resistance. It's a very common reaction. It is more comfortable to do a job using established patterns that have proved successful in the past. It's almost like these routines get hardwired into us. And when we encounter something that perturbs those patterns, we tend to resist.

Torben Rick, a European change management expert, has explained this in psychological terms. He diagrams the process in the illustration shown here:

Classic psychological reactions to change.

I can attest to the reality of that phenomenon. Many times I've observed ad salespeople going through that exact same cycle when confronted with the necessity of learning new sales skills. They don't start to change until they hit bottom and feel a crisis.

The good news, however, is that we can avoid dire depression and crisis through understanding and enlightenment.

What's to Understand?

The key issue to understand is that, as editors, we are living through an unprecedented era of change. We live in a multi-device world, in which ink-on-paper is just one legacy "device." As a result, reading habits are changing, and they remain in a state of flux. On top of that, new and competitive sources of information are becoming widely available. Publications no longer have a near-monopoly on new information.

Economic uncertainty also figures into the picture. Even a recession, a normal economic swing factor in our economy, takes a serious toll on publications that are not agile in their response to a changing environment. Now, actual hot war in the world is being threatened by the US and against the US. The US president is pursuing a policy that, while welcomed by many, is strongly resisted by others. An active campaign for impeachment is under way. I mention all this not to make a political statement, but to underline the fact that we can't count on smooth sailing ahead wherein old ways of doing our jobs will be adequate.

Time to Understand

While the time required for the mechanics of a perpetual survey is minimal, there is also the matter of how much time must go into analyzing the results. That can be more onerous, and not something that can be passed off to someone else. But if we don't take time to understand the survey feedback, we may not adjust our editorial product in response to emerging audience needs and desires.

Sometimes editors compare their table of contents to the menu of a restaurant. It provides a description of what's in store for the consumer.

I have a favorite restaurant that revamps its menu every season: summer, fall, winter, spring. That allows the restaurant to adjust to food preferences that vary by season -- lighter fare in the summer, something heartier in the winter, for instance. But I've noticed that some menu items don't reappear in a subsequent year. That's because the chef gets active and irrefutable feedback from the cash register. Diners don't order things they don't like. She also tests new dishes that are offered as specials. And when a special is a really big hit, it eventually makes its way onto the regular menu.

Certainly there are a lot of differences between running a successful restaurant and putting out a regular publication. However, in both instances diner or reader feedback provides data that is vital to success. The chef is fortunate to get her feedback day by day from the cash register. We, however, need to take the initiative to seek relatively objective feedback as a routine part of our editorial duties. And that's where the perpetual survey concept can be enormously valuable.

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

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