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Q&A: Satisfying Readers

Posted on Wednesday, May 20, 2009 at 2:09 PM

Q: I must be missing the mark regarding content. Somehow, readers are not connecting with our articles. I do a readership survey every other year, and I try to provide the kinds of articles that readers say they want. But, our renewal rate is dropping. Something is amiss. How can I do a better job of satisfying reader interests?

A: A declining renewal rate is a pretty sure sign that your content needs some adjustment. It's good that you are surveying. But that doesn't always provide a complete answer. There are other factors to consider.

First, read over the marketing materials that are being used to promote subscriptions. Is your marketing department correctly promoting the content that you have? One way to guarantee reader disappointment is to represent your publication as something that it is not.

If you find there is a disparity between what marketing is offering and what you are fulfilling, there are two possible remedial courses: (1) Marketing could simply do a more accurate job of representing your content. Or, (2) you could adjust your content to meet the promises being made in the marketing materials.

Don't be too quick to blame the problem on the marketing department. They may be on to something in how they are portraying your content, in terms of identifying a valuable market niche. If so, you should take a look at adjusting your content accordingly.

Ask the Right Questions

You should also reevaluate the kind of readership survey you are conducting. If, as you say, you are really asking readers what kinds of articles they want in the future, you should change that approach.

On a survey, it is better to ask readers to react to content, not to offer advice for future content. Doing the latter is in effect asking them to act like an editor, not as a reader. Most readers are not skilled in doing that. The response you'll get will be hypothetical. Often readers do a poor job at forecasting the kind of article offerings that will ultimately satisfy them. That's why it's usually better to go after reaction to what they've seen.

Survey Future Readers

Your understanding of what pleases readers should not be limited to your current crop of readers. Even the healthiest of publications can have a non-renewal rate of 20 percent or more. That means your content must satisfy not only the existing readers, but future readers, as well. Some of them will be joining your readership all through the year. You'll need to know what interests them, too.

Thus, consider also surveying future readers. You can do that by sending questionnaires to samples drawn from the kinds of lists that your marketing department uses in promoting subscriptions.

Provide questionnaire recipients with a list of topics and themes that have appeared in your publication during the past year. Add others that may be found only in competing publications. Ask the survey recipients to "check the topics on which you have read at least one article in the past 3 months." Then, you might ask them to choose from their picks which topic is of greatest and least interest. The results from this kind of survey will give you not only a list of hot topics, but also a means for establishing a ranking within the list.

Editorial Vision

Finally, however, in mapping out your content, don't ignore your own sense of editorial vision. An editor should not blindly respond to data from reader surveys. That's not to suggest that you should impose your personal interests upon your readers, despite their own.

But, an editor typically enjoys a privileged position with regard to the field being covered in a publication. You've got information coming across your desk from diverse sources. Some editors fancy themselves as the nerve center of their field. Use that position -- and the sense of editorial vision that comes from it -- to provide leadership for your readers. You can open whole new worlds to them!

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