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Harness the Power of Research - 3/2/2010 -

Advertising revenues grow when you deliver a convincing—and data-supported—story.

By Debra J. Stratton

SELLING ADVERTISING IN A TIGHT ECONOMY TAKES SPECIAL SKILLS, plus a tough skin. You not only must "get in the door” via phone, email, or an in-person call, but also, you must present a convincing sales argument to make your case.

To succeed, you need something more than a plea: You need hard data that proves your publication is worth the investment. In a down ad market, research is often the first thing to be cut; yet each time an advertising sales rep goes out unarmed with data, she risks leaving ad revenue on the table.

A statistically valid research study – generally conducted by an objective, third-party—can help you get the sale by convincing advertising agencies and seasoned media buyers that your claims have merit. While research requires an investment of time and money, it more than pays for itself by helping editors fine-tune content to the needs and interests of readers and by providing your ad sales force with the tools to boost revenues. This is the time to consider investing in your publication's future growth and then harnessing the power of that data to grow your publications.

First Things First

Before launching a research initiative, address these three critical issues:

  1. Clarify what you want to learn. What statements do you want to be able to make about your readers? This not only decides the type of research to conduct but the kinds of questions to ask.

    For example, if you want to say readers prefer your publication to the competition, you need to ask about the readership of competitive publications. To help you decide what statistics to include, review competitors' media kits to determine the data they're using to sell and also whether the sales materials make direct comparisons to your own publication. Create a questionnaire designed to collect the specific information needed to substantiate your claims.
  2. Build a budget for research. If you want to produce credible, statistically valid research, it's going to cost money. If you conduct research every two or three years, show your association management how the cost is significantly less if annualized. Begin to educate your publication's decision makers on the true lesson of sales: You have to spend money to make money.
  3. Weigh the tradeoffs of do-it-yourself versus third-party research. Ad agencies rarely consider in-house research statistically valid. They prefer data gathered by an outside, unbiased firm, so consider seeking the help of an experienced research partner.

Gathering Feedback

Two types of surveys are used to gather data for advertising sales: (1) Reader Feedback Study and (2) Buying Power Study.

Reader Feedback surveys gather data on the overall effectiveness of the publication by:

  • Evaluating readership of features and regular columns;
  • Identifying topics of interest;
  • Evaluating the perceived value or usefulness of content; and
  • Assessing readability by looking at graphic design.

Readership studies also gather critical data on the demographics of your audience, pass-along readership, and reader responsiveness to editorial and advertisements. By showing the value of content to readers, you provide powerful data for ad sales efforts as well.

A Buying Power survey collects data on reader involvement in making purchasing decisions. Questions query readers on what they buy, when they buy it, the size of their purchases, time of the purchase, and the extent of their involvement in the decision-making process (recommend, research, sit on a committee, etc.).

Some publishers conduct separate readership studies every two years and major advertiser-related buying power studies every two or three years. Or to cut costs, some publishers add a few purchasing questions to the general readership study. Both approaches can work.

Additional Advertising Research Tools

Building a Case

Regardless of which approach you use, survey data should become an integral part of your association publication's overall sales strategy. Incorporate statistics directly into your media kit, e-marketing efforts, and other marketing materials to:

  • Position your publication in the marketplace;
  • Provide detailed information about your readers;
  • Substantiate the perceived value of the publication to readers; and
  • Quantify the influence and buying power of your audience.

Here is a description of the five types of data you must be sure to collect:

  1. Data that substantiates the quality and demographic composition of readers. Advertisers want to know as much information as possible about who reads your magazine. Be sure to ask about readers' key attributes, such as:
    • Job titles
    • Areas of specialization
    • Type of employer/industry
    • Company/organization revenues
    • Size of staff
    • Years of professional experience
    • Highest level of education
    • Gender
    • Age.

For most associations, the quality of readership is a strong selling advantage. This is especially true if your circulation is much lower than competitors' and you're selling reader quality, not quantity.

  1. Data that substantiates depth of readership. If a magazine is well read, an ad will enjoy higher visibility and repeated exposure. Validate depth of readership with questions on how much of each issue is read; how much time is spent with the issue; whether or not the reader files back issues for future reference; average pass-along readership; and actions taken after reading.
  2. Data that substantiates editorial quality and professional usefulness. A publication that is seen as credible, authoritative and a valuable source of information is an attractive vehicle for advertisers. Ask readers how they perceive the publication: Is it considered "must reading,” relevant to their needs, and authoritative? Does it present reliable information, use credible authors, and regularly expose readers to new ideas?
  3. Data that illustrates purchasing influence/authority. Research can document readers' buying power in a variety of ways. For instance, list products and services and ask readers to check all the ways they are involved in the products' selection (prepare/approve budgets, prepare request for proposal, research/test products, recommend brands, or make final decision). Ask readers to estimate the total dollar amount spent on specific products and services during the past 12 months or the amount they plan to purchase in the next 12 months. Be sure to include dollar ranges to ease response.

    More ambitious questionnaires ask readers to estimate the total dollar amount they plan to spend in each product category. Don't make these questions too demanding or respondents may object and abandon the survey.
  4. Data that distinguishes your publication from the competition. Ask readers to check all the other publications they read on a regular basis and to select the one publication they consider to be the single best source of news and information. To generate the most useful data, be sure to include your own magazine and only those publications you consider direct competitors. If yours is a monthly magazine, for instance, track readership against other monthly magazines rather than a weekly e-newsletter.

Once you generate the data, put it to work by incorporating it into your sales strategy, media kit, and sales presentations. Not only will they get your sales team members in the door, but even better, they'll have the power of statistics behind them to support their presentation—and that leads to expanded sales.

Debra J. Stratton is president of Stratton Publishing & Marketing Inc., a provider of custom media, research, and consultation to associations. She is also the founder of the Angerosa Research Foundation, a nonprofit that works to advance the association publishing and marketing professions. Association Media & Publishing thanks her for volunteering to write this article for our membership.

Don't miss additional information on how reader research can help your publication compete, coming up in the March/April issue of Signature magazine (formerly, Association Publishing).


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