When creating readership surveys, don’t let the inmates run the asylum

When creating readership surveys, don’t let the inmates run the asylum

Steve Crescenzo

So, you want to do a readership survey on your employee publication, huh?

Well, good for you. It’s always a good idea to reach out to the huddled masses and see what they’re thinking, right? One should never communicate in a vacuum, if at all possible.

After all, you might be busting your hump to do a monthly print publication that employees never read.

Or, on the flipside, you may be creating a monthly print publication that is causing employees to leap out of bed on the first day of every month, shouting: “Yahoo! Today is employee publication day!”

OK, that second scenario probably isn’t happening. But a readership survey can yield some very good feedback and ammunition, if you know which questions to ask.

And that’s where so many surveys fall flat.

Most surveys waste time and space asking questions that shouldn’t be asked in the first place–because you shouldn’t need your readers to tell you how to do your job. You don’t want to put the inmates in charge of the asylum.

Here are some of the questions that show up in many surveys … questions that should never be asked.

* How would you rate the frequency of the publication? Now, I’ve done lots of focus groups with employees, and I’ll tell you right now that they probably don’t even know the frequency of your publication. I’ve asked people about the frequency of a certain publication, only to set off a debate:

“That’s that monthly publication, right? The one with the blue banner?”

“No, no. That one is called Winning Edge. He’s talking about Connections. It’s a quarterly. That big color one?”

“No, they don’t even do that one anymore. They killed that two years ago.”

“No they didn’t, I just saw it last month … or maybe it was a couple of months ago.”

You get the idea. Employees are bombarded with information these days. They aren’t even sure what they are getting anymore.

As the editor, you have to judge frequency. You know which vehicles you have at your disposal; you know how much news is rolling through the organization; you know how many initiatives the company has going right now that you need to communicate.

You decide the best frequency needed to meet those needs.

* How would you rate the format and design of the publication? You know how everybody at the organization–from accountants to administrative assistants–thinks they can write better than you? Well, there is also a whole bunch of people out there who think they are designers, too. They’re not.

You are the communication professional. Pick an appealing design that allows you to communicate your messages. Make sure it’s readable and clean, and don’t let your designers bully you by doing “anti-reader design tricks”–like shading text to the point that people can’t read it, or running words in a circle “for effect.”

* How would you rate the photos in the publication? This is always a dicey question, given the nature of most corporate photos. What are you going to do when they tell you your photos stink? I mean, photos in corporate America are tough to do–especially since most editors are not trained photographers.

That’s why we end up with four main categories of photos: The Grip and Grin, The Man at the Meeting Leaning Into the Microphone, The Oversized Check Presentation and the Execution at Dawn, where you line up six or seven “team members” against a wall and “shoot” them.

Don’t bother asking questions about photography unless you’re prepared to bring in a professional photographer to make things better.

* How much of the publication do you read? I’ve always been suspicious about this question, because it’s my experience that people rarely know how much of a publication they read.

You know when employees read the publication? While waiting for a meeting to start. On the train on the way home. Over a hurried lunch in the cafeteria. If you’re really good, they may bring it into the bathroom.

They are not paying attention to how much of the publication they read! Asking that question is a waste of your time–and theirs.

* What types of articles do you like to read? This question is asking for trouble. What are you going to do when they tell you they want more photo contests and recipes, and less of that “strategic stuff”? This question only works if you give them a list of strategic, business focused topics to choose from.

* How easy is the writing to understand? If you’re writing clear, concise stories, then you shouldn’t need to ask this question. And if you’re not doing that … well, then, deep in your black little heart, you already know that, don’t you? You are a writer. You don’t need a security guard to tell you your writing stinks, do you?

Here’s the bottom line when it comes to publications and surveys. You are the boss. You need to make most of the important decisions. Asking employees the kinds of questions listed above is like asking 1,500 chefs to help make the soup.

And as an editor, you need to stir your own pot.


So, if you shouldn’t ask about format, frequency, design or writing, what’s left? Well, you should ask what my idol and measurement guru Angela Sinickas calls “outcome” questions.

See, it’s not about readership numbers alone. You want 99 percent readership numbers? Put recipes and health tips in the publication. Everybody will “read” it, but so what? The idea of a successful publication is that employees do something after they read it. What is the outcome of their having read the publication? These are the kinds of questions you need to ask. These questions will help prove the true worth of your vehicle to the organization.

Some samples of “outcome questions” include:

* How has reading the publication helped you to discuss the company’s business with people outside the organization? The best employee publications turn employees into knowledgeable company ambassadors in the community. This question will tell you whether or not that is happening.

* How has reading the publication helped you do your job more effectively? The great employee publications all exist for one reason: to help employees help the organization. Your survey questions should determine whether or not you are meeting that goal.

* How has the publication helped you better understand the company’s overall business objectives? Managers want employees to “think like owners” and “understand the business of the business.” If your publication can help accomplish this, you’re worth your weight in gold.

* How has the publication helped you better understand the company’s financial situation? Your publication should be the translator between the accountants and the rest of the organization. It should help employees follow the money trail–so that when financial information is released, they understand the bigger picture.

* How has the publication helped you better understand the company’s important external audiences—customers, shareholders, etc.? No company exists in a vacuum. They all have external audiences–and what those external audiences say matters. The great employee publications build bridges between internal and external audiences.

Steve Crescenzo is president of Crescenzo Communications, a full-service consulting firm based in Chicago, Ill., USA, and specializing in employee communication. An expert in employee publications, Crescenzo is the leader of the popular Strategic Employee Publications workshop. He can be reached at steve@crescenzocommunications.com.

COPYRIGHT 2005 International Association of Business Communicators

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