I bet some of you have, at one time or another, taken some type of audience survey. Web sites and magazines survey readers all the time about their experience to find out what they liked and didn't like.
As a reporter and publications editor, I have been through many of these. Sometimes the process gets agonizing when the number of people involved grows larger and larger. Everyone has his or her own idea what to include, when to ask it and how it should be worded. I understand that many types of questions allow you to gather information that you might want. At the same time, the wording of questions influences the answers. You see this all the time from political surveys and special interest groups who just happen to conduct surveys that confirm their bias.
At times, I have gathered some information about readers through these surveys. For my own purposes, I have done my own survey with a focus group that was quick and cost very little. I bought a cheap pack or two of magic markers. I gave everyone in the group a copy of the publication, a magic marker and an envelope to fit the publication. I simply asked the focus group to circle exactly what they read and mail it back to me. This humbling experience gave me insight into how much time people spent with the publication, what they actually read, and what drew their attention. In a questionnaire, few people will say, "I read two articles, and glance at some photos, headlines and captions as I page through the rest of the issue." The magic marker survey told me that.
But I also liked those longer surveys, too. The best part about them was that the boss (sometimes a publisher, an executive vice president or department head) was so interested that he or she collected the surveys and sat down for a few hours to scour, dissect and digest the results. Most importantly, this kept him or her out of my hair and allowed me to concentrate for a couple hours.
When it comes to finding out what people want to read about, hear about and watch on TV or a movie, it's actually very difficult to get them to tell you exactly what they want. "Oh, I don't know," say some, while others might rattle off their favorites and tell you do "something like that."
I found the answer to this question in the middle of my career, and it's simpler than you think. In fact, it's so simple that a three-year-old could tell you (they might even tell you clearer than some adults!). Here it is: "Tell me a good story."
Telling a good story is a simple concept, yet it takes a lot of work. It's not easy to find truly great stories and be able to write about all of them. Your editor will give you a shot glass, and you go to Niagara Falls and bring back the best water. Yet that's the way I look at producing articles, columns and blogs.
There you have it. In my Press And Journal community blog, I will be posting as I can. I hope that my posts tell you a good story, provide some interesting tidbit that you never heard before, or give you a nugget of an idea to think about for the day. Thanks for reading, and I will see you back here soon.