Low-cost, high-value research projects show editors strengths and weaknesses


It’s tough out there, isn’t it? The pressures on most media businesses have increased in recent years, not just because of our challenging economies but also because of the continued pressures created by media fragmentation and proliferation.

In turn, I think these pressures have forced most media researchers to find ways of reducing costs or, if not, certainly to undertake more work for no additional budget. (If this doesn’t apply to you, please use the comments section to share your secrets!)

That’s why, in this blog, I want to share details of a couple of recent research projects that my business has undertaken in-house and for little or no cost. I’m not going to pretend that these projects are earth-shatteringly innovative or new (they’re not), but they have certainly been of use and are easily replicated.

Feel free to get in touch if you need any further information or have any comments or suggestions. The comments section on this blog is a good place to start.

So, scene set, here’s project No. 1: 

Newspaper Evaluation

My company, Johnston Press, publishes more than 250 local newspapers across the U.K., some of which serve large cities but many of which are really small, niche titles. It’s always been challenging to provide the editors of these titles with reader feedback on their newspaper, but we’ve developed a method that’s delivered great results.

We’ve designed an online survey that we then deliver to three audiences:

  1. The editor of the newspaper being assessed. (In other words, they complete a survey about their own title.)

  2. Five other editors from around the company. We first send them copies of the newspaper, then ask for their views. This is done anonymously to encourage truthfulness!

  3. Readers of the newspaper whom we reach in two different ways:
    • We deliver a complimentary copy of the newspaper to approximately 300 households along with a copy of the questionnaire.

    • We e-mail people from our database who we know live in the area, and ask that they complete the survey online.

The results are hugely useful as we put the feedback from the editor alongside that of the readers and other editors. This gives us a 360-degree assessment of the newspaper and provides the editor with a very clear picture on the strengths and weaknesses of their title.

It’s a project that requires little investment other than some time, but the value of the results is immeasurable.

Here’s the other approach that might be of interest.

Front Page Design

We’ve developed a method to give editors of our newspapers some very specific feedback about the impact of their newspaper’s front pages. This is the process:

  1. We ask the editor of the newspaper to take an actual front page of their newspaper and to design four or five alternative versions. We instruct them to use the same basic content but to change how this is presented, such as the page layout, the headline, the size or position of any photographs, and so on.

  2. We then e-mail people from our database (whose details we gather via their interactions with us, such as newspaper subscribers, competition entrants or advertisers) to encourage them to complete a short online survey that we’ve created. You can see an example of a survey by clicking here.

  3. In the survey, we present respondents with the different designs and then ask: if all of the designs were on a newsstand, which one they would pick up?

It’s hardly rocket science, but the results are fascinating. Consistently, the page design that readers say would most encourage them to pick up the newspaper is not the actual page that was used. Furthermore, the design preferred by readers is not the front page preferred by other editors when we show them the different options. Of course, we can analyse the results to see what design works best with occasional purchasers of the newspaper, the type of people we’re trying to encourage to buy the newspaper more often.

The conclusion? Editors may have a good eye for the design of a front page but that isn’t necessarily the front page that will help sell the most copies. In a market like the U.K. where casual purchase of newspapers far outweighs subscription or home delivery, the design of the front page is critically important. This research is helping us to provide editors with quick, actionable feedback that will help them design front pages that sell.

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