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Issue for October 2014

It's Time to Focus Group

Posted on Friday, October 31, 2014 at 12:38 PM

Examining the effectiveness of your publication in group sessions.

By William Dunkerley

With today's onslaught of changes in the magazine field, it's high time that you conducted a focus group. Why? Because many of the assumptions that your business has been based upon in the past deserve reexamination now.

For instance, are you targeting the right people in your marketing campaigns? Is your vision of what constitutes the most beneficial market segment for you to be in accurate? Is your content optimal for both attracting new readers and retaining existing ones? What formats do they prefer for reading your publication: print, smartphone, tablet, desktop? Do all your assumptions check out with today's realities?

Ultimately, it would be good for you to have quantifiable answers to these and other questions. But frankly, in this era of rapid change, it's hard to know what the right questions are to ask in a statistically valid survey that could produce hard numbers.

Right now you need a vehicle that can give you up-to-the-minute insights. A focus group is a good method for obtaining them.

Here are some tips for conducting a successful focus group:

Set Objectives

First of all, be sure not to overburden the agenda of your focus group session, lest it lose its focus! Take a few key areas to explore. Know in advance the nature and scope of what you want to find out. A focus group is supposed to have a freewheeling air about it. But you should have a clear idea about the kind of feedback you're seeking.

Location, Location, Location

Pick a venue that will be suited for the needs of the focus group session: convenient, comfortable, appropriately sized for the number of participants you will have, and free of distractions. Publishers often will want to conduct their focus group in the publication's offices. That's okay -- as long as it meets the foregoing criteria. But if your publishing offices will be convenient primarily to you, not your participants, pick somewhere else.

The Moderator

Whoever moderates your focus group session must have good skills as a meeting leader and facilitator. The job description also includes having (or being able to acquire) a good general knowledge of your publication and the important issues that concern the field in which you publish. Carefully consider whether you, the editor, or another staff member should attempt to moderate. Will in-house moderating tend to bias participant response (i.e., cause some people to want to please you and others to be oppositional)? Will you be able to control an understandable desire to proselytize the group? Will you be so close to things that you'll tend to miss the forest for the trees? If so, you should consider bringing in an outside expert to be the moderator.

Incidentally, at the actual focus group session, the moderator should stick to moderating and not be burdened with note taking responsibilities, etc. Thus, plan to have a knowledgeable staff member present, too, to do that. If possible, also video- or audio-record the session. Don't let that substitute for the note-taking, however. The notetaker will have the benefit of observing many subtle clues that would be lost if you just relied afterword on a recording.

Selecting Participants

Pick a group of about 10 to 12 people. If you know that your existing readers and potential readers particularly consist of subgroups or segmented interests, you might want to have a larger group of 20 to 25 participants to broaden the spectrum.

Remember, not everyone who's invited will accept, and not everyone who has accepted will show up. Plan accordingly. If you have a national circulation, do you have the budget for flying in participants? If not, pick a city for holding the session that does not have an obviously atypical population of readers. It may be necessary to offer participants an honorarium plus reimbursement of local travel and parking expenses.

While your selection of participants does not require the statistical rigor of drawing a sample for a scientifically valid survey, be sure to use a relatively randomized method of selection. Obviously, don't pick cronies, pen pals, friends, or relatives!

The Session

The moderator begins by introducing himself or herself and then giving a general indication of the scope of input he is inviting. Then he asks the participants to introduce themselves.

From the start, beware the emergence of group dynamics: who is reticent, who wants to dominate. Allowing opinion leaders to emerge within the group is generally undesirable. Try to keep a balance in the degree to which everyone offers input. Ask some general questions to get people in a participatory mood.

An Example

One of your objectives might be to explore the relevance of content. Here is a suggested approach for doing that:

Give each participant a copy of your current print issue or a printout of a digital issue. Give them a few minutes to look through it. Also give them a felt-tip pen. Request that after the initial pass through the publication they go back and rate each article or column according to its apparent value to them. This can be done by using the pen to write their rating, perhaps on a scale of 1 to 5 (with one being the highest value), conspicuously over the article.

Collect the publications or printouts and give them to a staffer to tabulate the results. While this is being done, begin a discussion of what they didn't find in the publication that they would have liked to have seen. A good technique to use here is to ask them to write their response on a piece of paper. You needn't collect the papers. Once everyone starts expressing themselves aloud, some people may be influenced by the level of persuasiveness shown by others. Having them commit their own reactions to paper will help them to focus on their own original observations -- their gut reactions.

Go around the room and ask your participants what content they thought was missing. As they do this, write a brief synopsis of their thoughts on a flip chart or whiteboard. During this phase, ask probing questions: "What do you mean by that?" "Could you expand upon your idea?" "Why do you feel that way?"

When the tabulation of reactions to the content of the current issue is complete, write it on the flip chart, too. Then go through the same procedure just described above to delve into the participants' views

Keep in mind that in investigating reader reaction to your content, you should be looking factors such as:

--Scope of editorial coverage: Is your publication covering all that interests readers? What things are not being covered?

--Areas of emphasis: Is too much space being given to one topic over another?

--Depth of coverage: Are some things being covered too superficially? Is more in-depth coverage needed?

--Presentation techniques: Is your use of language and visual devices the most effective for dealing with your audience?


The techniques discussed in this article can guide you through staging focus groups on any or all of the topics I suggested at the beginning of this article. Just keep in mind the objective of creating an atmosphere for free-flowing expression of opinion in a relatively uninhibited way.

Take advantage of this to probe deeply while displaying the skills of a good listener. Above all, be sure to avoid disclosing your own proclivities either directly or subtly. This is no place to try to convince the participants of your own point of view.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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The Future of Digital Magazines

Posted on Friday, October 31, 2014 at 12:36 PM

In the news: What's in store for digital magazine publishers?

For years, armchair media pundits and industry executives alike have questioned whether or not print magazines are dead. This month, Wired.com turns that conversation on its head by asking the inverse in an October 20 headline, "Are Digital Magazines Dead?"

In the Wired.com piece, Ryan Jones reminds readers that the digital magazine publishing industry began just a few years ago (in 2010, which he notes was also the beginning of the tablet industry). The article discusses some of the unique challenges faced by digital publishers and concludes that digital magazine publishing is not at all dead -- in fact, it is still in its infancy. Read the article here.

Also Notable

A New Magazine Metric

Traditionally, circulation numbers have driven the publisher-advertiser relationship, while other industry experts have looked to ad page sales as a sign of a publication's overall financial state. Late last month, the Association of Magazine Media (MPA) introduced a new metric called "Magazine Media 360°" to address some of the problems with the aforementioned statistics. According to Nicole Levy of AdAge.com, citing NielsenOnline or comScore, this new metric will include "print and digital editions sold, according to GfK MRI or Ipsos; desktop and mobile monthly unique visitors, and video viewers." Read more here.

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