Five Ways to Strengthen the Reader Bond

Article excerpt

Anne Graham is director and editor in chief of Internal Auditor, published by the Institute of Internal Auditors in Altamonte Springs, Florida.

Deborah J. Schwab, column editor, can be reached at Debbie_Schwab@cowlesbiz.com.

Association magazines build loyalty and community by offering readers lots of opportunities for interaction and plenty of surprises.

Like most magazines, association titles share a common goal: They want to bond with readers. When a reader talks about "my magazine," staff members want the point of reference to be their periodical. Reader interaction, often regarded as the stock-in-trade of association books, can be an important factor in developing that kindred spirit.

The structure of associations promotes interaction. Magazine staff members are likely to be personally acquainted with a fairly representative number of their readers through conferences and trade shows, committee work, or as a natural extension of other association activities. Larger associations sometimes stage "meet the editor" events, where questions and ideas about the magazine are exchanged one-on-one; or focus groups may be developed to set up dialogue on a somewhat larger scale.

In addition, association staffs frequently interact with readers/members seeking specific information via telephone calls or other communications. The magazine extends the perception of the association as a key, personal resource; and many members readily ask magazine staff members for assistance and insight. In the course of conversation, they are also likely to express reactions and thoughts related to the magazine. Just as significantly, most association staffs are quite comfortable in picking up the phone or dashing off an e-mail to discuss ideas and issues with their readers--especially as they often seem like friends or family.

But association staffs can do even more to enhance reader interaction. If letters to the editor have dried up, and the staff is feeling a little estranged from its readers, the following strategies may help to open new channels or revitalize existing ones:

1. Chat rooms and listservs

Utilize the association or magazine Web site, not only to develop synergy with the magazine, but to strengthen bonds between the magazine and readers. Chat rooms featuring authors of magazine stories allow readers to explore ideas and raise questions about the articles, for example. Most authors are willing, even eager, to participate, especially as they, too, value feedback. Listservs, where readers can compare and exchange their reactions to articles, provide another vehicle for electronic interchange. Readers become more connected to the magazine, as well as to one another. One of the by-products of such activities is that staff members, in monitoring the sites, can learn much about their readers and their perceptions of editorial content.

2. Fax-backs

Despite the current emphasis on newer technologies, fax-backs are still a reliable mechanism for increasing reader interaction. Typically, fax-backs ask readers for their opinions on some key issue, which is presented in a one-page format within the magazine. To respond, readers simply rip out the page, check off a few boxes, and fax it back. The staff tabulates the responses and provides the results to readers in the next issue of the magazine.

3. Letters

Encourage letters to the editor. Readers who take time to communicate their responses and reactions to the magazine warm the heart of even the coldest editor; but, perhaps more important, letters indicate at least some level of reader allegiance and loyalty, even when they aren't "love notes." Only involved, connected readers will take time to write. When readers don't care about the magazine, they toss it, offering neither constructive criticism nor praise.

One of the most direct strategies for increasing letters to the editor is just to make it easier to deliver the mail. …