The Evolution of Survey Research

During more than 30 years at local survey research company Readex Research, Steve Blom has had a front-row seat to the publishing industry’s seismic shifts in the way content is produced, distributed, consumed and evaluated.

Steve Blom -Director of Sales and Marketing at Readex

Steve Blom -Director of Sales and Marketing at Readex

Though much has changed since the day he started as a project director in 1987, Blom, now the director of sales and marketing at Readex, says the needs of many publishers has stayed the same. At the top of the list: the need to ensure content is valuable to readers, and to convince advertisers of the value of readers.

Blom spoke with MMPA about the evolution of survey research, and how Readex is addressing the challenges publishers face today.

MMPA: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in your field during the last three decades?

Blom: When I started here, our method was mailed surveys. We didn’t do phone surveys, we didn’t do in-person interviews. This was 1987—there was no Internet.

You roll forward a few years and the Internet appears, so we started to do online data collection as well. Most of our work was still mail, but over time, more and more work moved online.

People’s expectations or requirements as it pertains to quality research or response rate gradually changed, too. If you had called me in 1987 and wanted to do some sort of editorial study or an audience profile study, and I didn’t feel we could get a 60 percent response or greater, we weren’t even pursuing that business because we were big advocates of response. As soon as the Internet showed up as a means for capturing and executing surveys, response rates as an important attribute got pushed to the side.

Typically online surveys are going to yield a lower rate of response and in some cases much, much lower. So that was a real change in mindset. We often get 10 percent, 20 percent. Today publishers are content with that.

MMPA: With so many survey tools available today, how does Readex set itself apart?

Blom: That’s another big change I’ve seen during my time in the industry—the advent of do-it-yourself tools. As those developed, some of our traditional customers were of the mindset that they could do things in house, on their own, and what we have been left with to a certain extent are situations in which the customer needs us for an unbiased, third-party project, or the survey effort is too complicated and they can’t do it themselves.

It is when you’re thinking about more complicated methods or a mix of methods that we can provide the expertise to help. We have some people that want to do a print component as well as an online component and then they have different audiences and circulation files that fall into it. We tend to get the stuff that often times people simply can’t or don’t want to handle.

I suppose it’s much like a backyard mechanic. Some of us can change spark plugs and tires and things like that, but when it gets too complicated, you hand it over to a professional.

MMPA: Is mail still a relevant survey method today or have you moved almost entirely online?

Blom: The thing that is kind of ironic is that our mail survey business is actually growing, not necessarily in the sense of units, but in the sense of size. We do some very large mail-out works and often we’re hired by another research company that no longer has mail or print capability.

The reason mail works, in some cases, is because that’s the only way that some of our customers can get to their audience. If they have a subscriber base, for example, and they don’t have a high incidence of email addresses, mail is the only game in town. There are some of our customers who have older audiences who are just more comfortable with print.

When we’re talking about printed magazines, for example, it kind of goes without saying that there is a land address, so we know we can get to that audience. It kind of dovetails off the response rate issue as well. Typically we’re going to get higher rates of response from a mail, printed survey than we would from the equivalent email or online survey.

MMPA: What are some of the key challenges you’re addressing today, or trends you are seeing?

Blom: In some ways it’s not a lot different than it was when I started here in that many times we get hired to support sales and marketing initiatives. What that means is trying to describe and quantify the nature of the audience: who they are, what they do, what they buy. In those cases research is the foundation or the bedrock of a marketing campaign or media kits, things like that.

That continues to be something that we do frequently. I think I find a little bit more interest in what I would describe as editorial or content-based research more than what we saw many years ago. I think our core customers understand that they are competing not just with a couple of other publications in their niche, but all kinds of other communications channels that are vying for eyes and attention.

In the end, it’s about trying to provide relevant, useful content in a way in which readers want to consume it. So again, flashing back 30 years, we used to ask, “What do you want to read?” Now, it’s asking what they want to read via what channels and at what frequency.

Key challenges publishers face today are associated with the audience of interest. It used to be that we’d survey a sample of those who receive the publication in the mail. Now you have those people, and potentially people on an email list for an e-newsletter, then you have different e-newsletters. They might have some sort of contact information associated with social media.

So it’s really trying to define, quantify and conceptualize the audience that we’re trying to survey, so you can make some sort of accurate extrapolations—what those survey results mean and who specifically they represent.

MMPA: After more than 70 years in business, what does the future hold for Readex?

Blom: From the outset, we have constantly tried to think about expanding our markets. We’ve grown from fairly structured and rigid ad readership studies that were sold from a rate card to providing custom research solutions to the publishing community to conducting member satisfaction surveys for associations, etc. We’re trying not to put all of our eggs in one basket and looking at surveying a variety of markets and offering a variety of solutions.