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Making the Case for Reader Research - 8/10/2010 -

How do you justify the expense of reader research, and how do you make sure members will participate? A recent roundtable discussion included advice for association publishers looking for answers before taking the case to the association's management.
By Phaedra Brotherton

Everyone agrees that research can be a valuable tool in discovering the needs of members and advertisers. But, what's involved in conducting a survey? How do you justify the expense? How do you get others to participate? And the biggie – electronic or paper?

Participants at a roundtable on research and surveys explored these questions and more during the Association Media & Publishing Annual Meeting in Washington, DC in June. Lewis Copulsky, president of Lewis & Clark Research, facilitated the discussion. Here are some of Q&As from the roundtable:

1. How do you convince association management to fund a survey? Stress the important information associations can gain from conducting research, said Copulsky and other roundtable participants. Information can often spark ideas for cost-cutting or better ways to target information. Research can also help associations find out:

  • What members find useful and what they don't, which could lead to possible cost cuts and refocus on useful items;
  • What info members want but aren't getting;
  • Reader preference for online or print materials.

In addition, for selling advertisers, one participant noted that many advertisers view outside research results as more credible.

2. How do you get people to participate? Several types of incentives can work, including money, gift cards, and association conference registrations. Copulsky said that paying members money to participate in a focus group is not unusual. One roundtable participant noted that they paid $50 for CPA members to participate in a focus group. Copulsky said that actually seems a bit low for accountants, adding that physicians and lawyers often get paid $200-$500 to participate. He suggested that maybe $100 would be more in line for CPAs.

The question came up about the legitimacy of a "bought” response through incentives. Copulsky responded that offering incentives was standard practice for surveys.

3. How do you determine which research method to use? Focus groups and in-depth interviews are good when you need to find out about new projects, such as a new publication, said Copulsky. After that, an online survey can be used to further explore issues that come up during focus groups and interviews. For drilling down even more, qualitative phone calls to individuals can be good. But Copulsky noted that he is not a fan of telephone surveys, as people are reluctant to commit to a block of time.

4. What's best—online or mail surveys? Copulsky prefers mail because it tends to get a better response, though he acknowledged that it's more expensive. He said what often works well is giving people an option—sending the mail survey and then referring them to a place where they can take it online if they wish. The reason mail pulls a bigger response is that people can see how long the survey is, can work on it at different times, and it's portable, he added.

5. What the average cost of a survey? Prices can vary widely, starting around $5,000, said Copulsky. He stressed the need to let the research firm know what your budget is. Firms will let you know what they can do for you within a certain budget.

One round table participant had experience conducting a readership survey in a past job. The survey was discussed as part of the company's annual planning session. At first, she had no idea about the cost. But she asked around and settled on the round figure of $20,000 and received approval.

6. What is considered a good response rate? It varies according to the membership, said Copulsky. He said that he considered 50 percent a good response rate with follow-ups—before the frequent use of online surveys. Online surveys usually garner a smaller response, he said. As for what advertisers want – Copulsky says it depends on the sophistication of the advertisers; some will ask about the response rate – others will not.

Copulsky added that even if you get 20 percent response, that's more information than you had before the survey.

7. How do I find a good research firm? When looking for research companies, Copulsky gave these tips:

  • Make sure the company understands what you do as a membership or trade association. One participant agreed with this, saying that she likes to work with vendors who really understand what her organization does. She automatically discounts those that try to pigeon hole the organization.
  • In your RFP, be as specific as possible in what you want the research group to do.
  • Give the company your budget. They will often tell you what they can do for the amount you can pay them.

Phaedra Brotherton (Twitter: @phaebro) is a freelance editor, writer, and publications manager and principal of PBCommunications. Association Media & Publishing thanks her for doing an excellent job of covering this roundtable discussion for members who were unable to attend.


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