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Engaging with Your Readers

Posted on Tuesday, June 29, 2021 at 6:39 PM

Which reader engagement tools and activities are most valuable to editors?

By William Dunkerley

Making your articles enticing to read goes a long way toward reader engagement. Good writing and editing are requirements for achieving that.

There's another element that now bears a fresh look: the matter of getting reliable feedback from readers on what you are publishing. The acceleration of social change in how we all acquire and digest content is one aspect. Further change that is a consequence of Covid is another.

The massive 2010 editorial failure at Newsweek is now a classic example of how badly things can go when editors fail to get and act on audience feedback. The magazine's demise followed an in-house attempt to reinvent itself editorially. The fatal flaw was that editors implemented changes to suit their own tastes and not those its target audience might have preferred. After that plan failed, the magazine ultimately was sold to a buyer for one dollar.

Successful editors have used several tools to garner feedback from readers including online reader comments, letters to the editor columns, attending or sponsoring group gatherings that attract members of their target reading audience, readership surveys, and focus groups.

Online Reader Comments

The advent of online publishing opened vast new opportunities for readers to express themselves on each article published. That sounds like a great way for an editor to monitor reader reaction, but it came with some big problems. Instead of offering substantive feedback, many posters use a comments section as a soapbox for pet issues. Often they debate their issues among themselves, even heatedly; some posters use the opportunity to promote shady business pitches or political material; coarse and inappropriate language can appear; rights of others can be infringed upon; and legal liability considerations can arise. Overall an image unbefitting your publication can be associated with the comments section.

One response by editors has been to institute active moderation of submitted posts. But that can be time-consuming and expensive. Another response is to simply eliminate reader comments altogether. There has been a growing trend toward that solution. But that shuts down a major means of reader engagement.

Letters to the Editor

Publishing a regular column with letters to the editor is a long-established feature dating far back into the print era. My first editorial job was as letters editor for a national special interest consumer publication. Each month I would accumulate a large pile of submissions. I had two print pages to fill. It was a popular feature. The letters I selected dealt both with comments about the publication (good and bad) and other comments of general interest to the audience the magazine served. Through reading all the submissions I acquired a good sense of how readers were reacting and what interested them. That information was of little interest to my chief editor, however. Basically, the letters editor was expected to simply fill the allotted two pages with interesting letters. Analyzing the overall nature of the comments and observing trends over time was overlooked by editorial management.

How are letters to the editor handled at your publication? Perhaps they too are considered simply as editorial input for the column, without serving as a useful source in editorial management decisions. If so, you might want to look at the bulk of letters received as a form of valuable reader feedback.

Trade Shows

Trade shows are a natural venue for B2B editors to mingle with the people in their respective industries. Many publications participate as exhibitors, presenting the benefits of reading their publications. Often editors can also participate as expert speakers at these gatherings. A similar situation exists for editors of special interest consumer publications.

There are also opportunities for editors of other consumer publications. They can take part in conferences, seminars, and workshops that are attended by their target audiences. There are also trade shows in which your advertisers participate. They may not be attended largely by your own target audience, but instead by advertisers and their spectrum of customers.

Take a look at the categories of advertisers that appear in your publication. Often they are concentrated in several particular areas. Participating in related trade shows can give editors insights into participant business interests. Acquiring and retaining audiences that will be responsive to your advertisers is important to your publication's financial success. These trade shows can help you to focus your content accordingly.

Surveys and Focus Groups

The aforementioned reader engagement activities focus on giving editors a general sense of reader wants and needs. Focus groups represent a research methodology that can enhance that sense, as you can more directly explore and test reader reactions. But all these approaches will give you qualitative, not quantitative, input. That's where more formal surveys come in. They generally elicit responses from a randomly selected sample of your target audience. From that you can reasonably project the results upon the total universe comprised by that audience.

Many publications regularly survey their audiences. However, surveys are typically geared toward collecting information for the ad sales department’s use. But those advertising-oriented surveys offer a good opportunity to tag along with questions that could provide valuable input to editors.

There is typically another aspect of surveys that should be addressed. These surveys often target existing readers. If you are interested in audience development, it will be helpful to learn the needs and interests of potential readers. They may differ from those of your existing readers. That means surveying potential readers will be an important objective too.

In the above instances, the impact of the Covid pandemic should be taken into account. Many annual gatherings have been postponed, cancelled, or permanently shuttered. Participants may be reluctant to take part in focus groups that require their physical attendance. One happy consequence of the pandemic is that it forced many people to become adept at meeting online. People's facility in using Zoom, for example, has, well, zoomed. View these all as opportunities for opening new ways of getting close to your audience and facilitating engagement.

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

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