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Why publishers shouldn’t skimp on market research

A good idea for a magazine cannot make a successful transition from concept to publication without in-depth research. Mary Hogarth reveals the value of investing in market research.

During my time as a magazine consultant I have been commissioned to help would-be publishers develop a magazine idea. Some have succeeded, while a few have floundered. The first question I’m often asked is: I have a great idea but where do I start?

Whether you are developing a new concept or brand extension, it needs to be done in stages. Step one is to first identify your main objective – what do you want to achieve? Only then can you start to build a set of research objectives to test the viability of your idea.

Once you have a clear objective, map out the project. Every action including the research must be accurately costed in terms of time and money, then scrutinized to ascertain its potential ROI (return on investment).

While market research is crucial to test viability, it’s important to remember that data alone will not produce an ROI unless it is carefully evaluated and results in action points. Therefore, before investing in it keep in mind the point of the study and set the objectives accordingly.

Remember this will not only test viability, done properly, it should also ensure your output is sustainable and profitable for the long term. Therefore, research objectives should:

  • Aim to accurately define your audience
  • Find out their relevant likes and dislikes
  • Identify points they are not keen on
  • Ascertain what else they might want from the publication/brand extensions

Define your audience

With all projects, it is vital to identify who your target audience is from the start. Once you’ve identified potential readers, the next stage is to build a basic demographic profile before investing in in-depth research such as surveys or focus groups.

Having that basic profile will enable you to not only decide on what survey questions need to be asked, but also determine where to find your target groups. The latter is essential if you are researching a new magazine concept or widening audience participation.

Those who have established a basic demographic profile first, are more likely to develop questions that will harvest rich data. However, before crafting those questions, there are three points you need to focus on:

  • How many respondents will be sufficient to provide reliable data?
  • Where will I find my target group of potential respondents?
  • What incentive can I secure to ensure participation?

The number of respondents needed to achieve reliable, informative data depends on the rationale. For example, if targeting existing readers to ascertain their views on content and brand extensions, then the target reach should be around 20 to 30 per cent.

For those researching a new concept the more responses the better. Aim for 500+, although realistically a response rate of between 100-200 may be more achievable and should provide sufficient data to test and develop the idea. With new start-ups, you will also need to determine where your target groups are most likely to reside. This can be done by focussing on your magazine’s genre. If launching a specialist title such as writing, then the first targets will be social media writing groups and members of national writing groups or circles. Ditto for spiritual groups, sports or B2B.

Set clear objectives

With any research project, setting clear objectives will ensure a structured approach. Your research will be unique to your magazine – this is not a one-size fits all. Have a clear rationale focussing on what you need to achieve – and why?  Only then can you work towards an ROI. I recommend adapting a traditional journalist toolkit which I have outlined in the table below – identifying who, what, where, why and how along with suggested action points for each element. This will give the study focus and depth, whether it’s a survey or focus group.

Don’t forget that surveys and focus groups also provide an opportunity to reach out to your intended audience and get to know them.

Case study: Research challenges

Dr Laura Santamaria, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sublime – a magazine dedicated to making sustainability accessible and aspirational through design and entrepreneurship – knows the value of data but is not driven by it.

“The problem of taking realistic data too seriously is that, as a publisher, you can be misled because realistic data always shows the now, and rarely anticipates emergent interests and trends,” explains Laura.

Instead of opting for the conventional marketing methods, much of Sublime’s research is focused on design thinking and cultural insights, adopting methods from innovation such as trend forecasting and future scenarios.

“Sublime not only seeks to build a lifestyle proposition on the way we live today, but also propose a lifestyle for the future. The aim is to inspire readers to opt for intelligent lifestyle choices, help them transition from lifestyles of overconsumption to lifestyles of wellbeing and sustainability, and inspire our readers to discover a new way of looking at our world.”

The most challenging research embarked upon says Laura, was prior to formulating the brand and value proposition for Sublime.

“This research took various shapes and forms, and lasted for about three years. Since we were creating a new genre rather than entering a set category in the market, developing the magazine concept and deciding when it was the right time to launch required a lot of good data to make informed decisions.

“But at the same time, it required us to take the ‘data story’ with a pinch of salt, and take a leap of faith to materialise our vision.”

However, the most important Laura says she has learned along the way is “that to be truly innovative you need to be open to innovative research methods – i.e. to come up with creative ideas, you can’t build on what traditional market research tells you . . .”

Key takeaways

Research is like any other investment, to get a return it must be meticulously planned setting clear and measurable objectives. Moreover, any data gleaned from a study then needs to be carefully analysed to plan the next steps forward.

Here are my three essential points on market research:

  1. Publishers should use every opportunity to get to know potential readers in advance of a launch.
  2. Set specific objectives from the outset.
  3. Always listen to feedback to check if it’s valid before taking any action.

Lastly, when relaunching any aspect of a magazine it pays to forensically evaluate sales figures to identify causes of spikes and slumps in circulation. Only then can you make a balanced decision – be it on changes to editorial content, extending brand reach or deciding whether to relaunch.

This article is based on the second chapter of my latest book, Business Strategies for Magazine Publishing published by Routledge and available from Amazon. My next article in this series will be in January, focussing on audience engagement.