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The Incredible Invisible Online Reader

Posted on Monday, July 30, 2012 at 8:40 PM

Using surveys to find out more about online reader preferences.

By William Dunkerley

The Editors Only survey about surveying online readers turned up a paradox that exists at many publications: Few editors are specifically measuring the interests of online readers. But at the same time, we know from other sources that many publishers are looking to online publishing for major revenue growth.

For editors, the needs and interests of online readers are invisible. They're not being surveyed; they're not being seen. Meanwhile, publishers are maintaining incredibly high hopes for online business development.

That's the paradox here. It is pretty hard to develop publishing revenues without knowing what appeals to the online readers and what doesn't. That's where the conflict comes in between publishers' aspirations and editors' practices.

Managing editor Denise Gable presents a selection of our survey responses in "Surveying Your Online Readers" elsewhere in this issue. But we discovered the paradox when we analyzed the overall survey statistics, which indicate that only about 15 percent of editors are specifically homing in on online readers through surveys. Our survey was intended to be anecdotal, not statistical. As a result, there is a wide margin of error in that 15 percent figure. However, even taking it with a large grain of salt, it is still pretty clear that we're not doing a lot of research on the interests of our online readers.

Nonetheless, knowing how to attract and keep online readers is an essential component of online business development. There are actually quite a few things we need to find out if we want to produce an effective editorial product.

Certainly, researching the basic areas of reader interest is a starting point. We need to know what topics are of interest and how readers respond to different articles.

If a publication has both print and online readers, it is important to understand how the interests of those two groups differ. That will allow us to put the right content in the right medium. Some publications serve both print and online content to all subscribers. Even there, it is important to know if readers prefer consuming certain parts of the content in print and other parts online. That knowledge will help us to make smart decisions as opposed to just shooting in the dark.

Beyond surveying areas of interest, we also need to know about reading habits. Editors who have produced print publications over time have a sound understanding of how, where, and when readers consume the content. Content has been conceived and formatted accordingly. Print reading habits are well established and haven't seemed subject to radical change.

On the other hand, there is no long-term track record for online reading habits. What's more, they are still evolving. What was comfortable to read on a desktop PC may not be so on a smartphone or even a tablet. And while such reader habits are still evolving, the devices on which content is read are evolving, too. There is no reason to believe that the situation will regulate anytime soon. It's in constant flux.

We should be prepared for ever-changing reading habits for a long time to come. The best way to be prepared is through an active program of researching online reader interests and habits. Don't let the interests and habits of online readers remain invisible. Survey them! The results will be incredibly useful.

William Dunkerley is editor of Editors Only.

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