How Are We Doing, Really?

Article excerpt

To succeed, association titles must develop and implement ways to acquire, measure and act on reader response to their magazines.

Commercial publishers who want to assess reader response to their magazines can usually rely on several straight-forward indicators, starting with newsstand sales, subscriptions and, at least in some cases, sophisticated, continuous research. At association magazines, the drive to give readers what they want must be just as emphatic, but measuring success is likely to involve different factors and approaches.

Although some association publications are marketed externally, most readers receive the magazine simply because they are members. As a result, sales and subscriptions to non-members represent only one fragment of information. In addition, association research budgets are usually small or nonexistent, partly because volunteer boards, confident about their captive readerships, may not fully appreciate the need for surveys and other data.

As association staffs become more deeply immersed in the business and competitive aspects of publishing, however, they can no longer afford the luxury of seat-of-the-pants management or the assumption that success and reader loyalty are automatic. Like their for-profit counterparts, association staffs must ask--and keep asking--"How are we doing?" And they must be able to rely on the answers.

Association specialists must be ca Debra J. Stratton and Angela Angerosa of Stratton Publishing and Marketing, Inc., in Arlington, Virginia, recently issued cautionary advice to association publishers: "`We're Number One' is no longer a given," Stratton and Angerosa wrote in Association Publishing. "Frequently, when conducting reader studies, we'll ask, `If you could receive only two publications, which would you select?' While the response nearly always favored the association publication by 50 percent or more of respondents in the past, that number has dropped to 30 percent or fewer in recent years as competition--even in trade and professional publications--has grown more intense. Members rely on a variety of publications to keep current; associations can't assume they have a captive readership."

In associations where magazine staffs have been able to sell the idea of systematic research, comprehensive reader surveys are typically conducted annually or biannually. The benefits of such studies are obviously invaluable; almost all staffs seem to be surprised and redirected by at least a few findings. Surveys facilitate comparisons of current and previous results, as well as identification and analysis of trends. For example, the "two-publications" question of Stratton and Angerosa might hold several implications for association staffs.

Time and money

The downside of formal research is usually linked to project turnaround time and expense. Even the process of drawing a sample can be complex in associations, especially because magazine staffs often don't own the database. From start to finish, the entire project is likely to entail as much as six months. When additional time for staff analysis is factored in, the information may be a year old before action is taken on the results. In today's business environments, that time lapse can be critical.

Although few staffs would argue that solid information is not worth the cost (which typically ranges from $5,000 per survey and up), staffs with few financial resources and little support may find research a difficult concept to sell to management. In such a case, combining a reader survey with an overall association membership survey may help them to gain acceptance.

Some staffs have conducted their own surveys, often by enlisting the assistance of association technology personnel. While the scope, credibility and usefulness of such studies may be somewhat diminished, the perception is likely to be that some information is better than none. …