Follow the Reader
One trusty tool worth reviewing at the start of a new year is the mission statement, which explains what the magazine is about and how you keep readers satisfied. As part of mission control, it is the editor's job to look ahead, to anticipate topics and trends, and to know what the audience wants before the audience even has an inkling. Most editors know demographics generated for ad sales;the age, income, marital status, job title and other name/rank/serial number information in the media kit. But an editor needs a different kind of information in order to plan issues for the year ahead.
An editor needs reader answers to one basic question: How am I doing?
Some publishers are reluctant to fund editorial research. After all, most came up through the business and advertising side, and for them the book is primarily an advertising vehicle; they do not always see the pay-off for the investment. In a win-win environment, editorial improvements can lead to advertising advantages. I think that Peter Drucker, the business management guru, had it about right when he observed that there are three key principles at work in the marketplace:
1. The customer is the business. A magazine exists at the whim of a reader.2. The customer buys satisfaction, not products. A magazine should be time well spent. The reader is in search of pleasure, insight and guidelines for success.3. Only customers know what customers think. To plan effectively, an editor must get into readers' minds, learn what they want more or less of.
These precepts are especially important if your field is changing due to technology or if your audience is shifting in terms of age or interests. So, if only readers know what their attitude toward a magazine's editorial content and packaging is, how can we tap into their minds? We know that you can't rely on reader mail because readers who are moved to write are not "typical." They either love you or hate you, and you can't base your editorial planning on extremists.
Three Roads to the Reader's Mind
1. Readership surveys: Mail, phone, Web site or magazine insert. All are costly and tap into a volunteer mentality or someone responding to a $2 bill or a chance to win a weekend in Vegas if they will just send in the survey or fill out the questionnaire;and seldom is heard a discouraging word.
2. Focus groups: Either informal;advisory board members, friends of the magazine, tradeshow wine and cheese gatherings; or formal;twelve typical readers in a room, led by professional moderators and taped for review and analysis. Here the information you get is often costly and unreliable. I recall looking through the one-way mirror at a group asked to evaluate a magazine that had been redesigned, repositioned, and changed trim size from digest to newsmagazine dimensions. The group quickly came under the influence of one member who had very persuasive communication skills;and who, we noticed, had barely gone through the sample issues in front of her at the outset. It was more ego than editorial insight on display. Remember the rule of direct marketing: Garbage in, garbage out.
3. Call a reader a week: This is the best and least expensive way to get useful feedback. Get names and numbers from letters of cancellation (which can be most interesting) or at random from the circulation department. "Hi, I'm the editor here at Blacksmith Monthly, and I'd like to know what you think of the magazine." Then listen.
How does a reader go through the magazine? What do they read first? What do they ignore? What do they find helpful? What covers had impact? Does the reader like the covers, the cover stories, old or new columnists and special departments, the back page? Long stories or short? Photos or illustrations?
By the end of the year, you will have visited the minds of 50 random readers. You will have a sense of audience that will enable you to plan ahead, to maximize your publication's power and influence in the marketplace;and to keep the reader coming back for more.
John Brady is visiting professional at the Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University. He is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy, and conducts editorial workshops for professionals. For information on his Interviewer's Handbook: A Guerrilla Guide for Reporters and Writers, e-mail him at Bradybrady@aol.com.