Annual Meeting Reports

Obtaining Reader Feedback and Using It to Improve Your Journal

Arlene Weissman, director of the Research Center of the American College of Physicians, kicked off this session with the provocative question, Why do we care about readership feedback? After all, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Publishers may believe that they are doing an outstanding job in meeting their readers’ needs, but the readers themselves may have a different perspective. Ultimately, publishers want to know whether they are making the most efficient use of their resources and how they can enhance their readers’ experiences most effectively at minimal expense.

First, publishers must determine what information they are looking for, why they want feedback, what kind of feedback they are seeking, and what they intend to do with the feedback that they gather. It is during this project-planning stage that publishers establish their goals and objectives and decide whether they want to gather feedback from readers, authors, editors, or other nonreaders. Once the objective is known, everything else will follow.

The next step is to decide on the method for gathering information and to determine the analysis plan. Weissman outlined two basic types of research: qualitative research, often conducted through focus groups, and quantitative research, which includes conducting surveys. A focus group allows a publisher to examine why readers behave as they do and is helpful for exploring and generating ideas. In contrast, a survey provides publishers with hard numbers for data analysis.

If a focus group is selected, open-ended questions are best for prompting useful answers. For example, a publisher may ask participants how they prefer to read articles and what makes an article interesting to them. If a survey is chosen, the next step is to design it; this includes establishing an appropriate length for the survey and crafting questions that will elicit the most valuable answers. Readers may be asked to rate the quality of articles, the relevance of the content to their field or specialty, the timeliness of articles, or the readability of material (including typeface, graphics, and layout).

For both surveys and focus groups, participants tend to be more likely to respond if they are given some kind of incentive. Weissman’s organization has used raffles for gift cards and gourmet fruit baskets with cash; $2 bills are particularly effective in eliciting survey responses. Another popular incentive is to give points to participants each time they complete a survey that can be redeemed for gift cards on or another site.

When the data have been gathered, the next step is to carry out the analysis plan and to determine how to report the findings to survey participants (and others) to let them know that their opinions have been heard. Publishers must decide what changes they are willing to make and what effect the changes will have on their organization. One common pitfall publishers make after data gathering is to take no action once the survey results are in. Weissman pointed out that any type of survey or focus group is a form of communication; after asking for feedback, a publisher must use the data that it gathers to respond to its readers’ thoughts and concerns.

Prudent publishers want to know whether they are meeting their readers’ needs and how they might make their material more accessible to readers. Publishers must first determine their ultimate objective, which will drive the data-gathering process. Gathering feedback is not a one-time event. Once results are available, publishers should be prepared to share their findings and implement changes. By gathering reader feedback, publishers increase their ability to understand their readers and respond to their needs and thus retain current readers and attract new ones.