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‘The Feedback… Was Eye-Opening to Me’; Done Right, Surveys Can Beget Real Change

Like anything else these days, surveys can be personalized. One of the reasons the Financial Times’ survey on their newsletters did so well last year—78,000 responses—was that they “tried to match readers’ motivations for subscribing with the content and form of the newsletter.” Organizations surveying their own employees has also grown in popularity, with success there perhaps relying on employees seeing actions resulting from them.

“We survey our staff every year, and we take it very seriously,” said Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, a Financial Times company, chief strategist at sulla guida pubblicata da Cryptonomist and one of the winners of our IMPACT Awards last year. “We have a very specific process that we use, so that we get a very high response rate and then take specific actions. It was feedback from this staff survey six years ago that originally prompted our action on DEI. That’s the reason we are ahead of the curve. Being a company that responds to the priorities of its staff also supports a strong culture.”

In the just-released Qualtrics’ 2023 State of HR Report, I read this: “Our research shows organizations are surveying employees with increased frequency. Over half (57%) of the HR leaders surveyed reported they’re running employee feedback programs every quarter at a minimum.”

Fink went on. “The feedback we got on those surveys was eye-opening to me. I was probably a little too idealistic in my mind and just believed the world was maybe functioning better than it was… When I started looking at what steps we could take as an organization, I found that there were really a lot of tools we could use to improve our diversity. And I became a champion of it myself. But it was my staff and the feedback that I got on those original surveys that prompted me to recognize that this was a bigger issue than I had understood it to be.”

The report warns, however, that not every organization pays as much attention to feedback as Money-Media has. “While this signals progress, organizations must also work to understand and establish the right cadence of listening for their unique cultures, history, and readiness; one that will influence and change the behaviors of its leaders—for the better. Ultimately, with more frequent employee feedback in hand, leaders can make more strategic, agile, and data-driven decisions.”

Here are six tips for creating a better survey. The first three come from an article in Inbox Collective discussing the survey that the FT sent to its newsletter readers:

Make at least part of it (preferably the first part) easy to fill out. When the Financial Times embarked on a newsletter survey last year, they “created a one-click feedback mechanism that was actually embedded into the bottom of the newsletter, providing an opportunity for our readers to give feedback at the point where they finished reading,” wrote the FT’s Sarah Ebner, executive editor and head of newsletters, and Michael Hoole, research manager.

Add an incentive. The FT entered those who completed the whole survey into a monthly prize draw to win $100 of book vouchers. “It turns out that FT readers love books! In order to be entered into the prize draw, respondents had to fill out the whole survey (which opens in a separate tab), but we’ve found they’re happy to do so for the chance to win a prize.”

Leave a place for verbatim comments—towards the end of the survey. These can often be the most helpful parts of survey responses. “Not only did we get some brilliant (and very amusing) comments along the lines of ‘X writer is a genius, give him a pay rise,’” wrote Ebner and Hoole, “but we have also had useful remarks suggesting that: ‘Certain parts of a newsletter are confusing. The email is too long or too short. Some readers would prefer more insight and fewer links. Promoting Premium content in Standard newsletters is extremely frustrating for readers who can’t access this exclusive content.’ From this feedback, we’ve been able to make several changes to improve our newsletters for all readers.”

Ask for member/subscriber/employee input. They will have a good sense of the issues that might be front of mind. “Involving members will help them feel engaged as volunteers, and if they’re invested in the data, they may be more likely to share the survey with their partners who aren’t members to get more participants,” writes Kristin Richeimer, president and owner of e7m International Consulting, in Associations Now last week.

Build off of previous questions. “Logic-based questions can also be useful to include in these surveys since they allow [organizations] to dig into certain areas to learn more about non[subscribers and non]members,” Richeimer writes. “An example of a logic-based question could be: ‘You indicated that you have never considered joining the organization. Please rank which of the following reasons apply.’”

Ask for future participation. “About 9% of survey respondents have indicated that they would be happy to answer further questions from the FT,” Ebner and Hoole wrote. “We have already used some of these extremely engaged participants for feedback on a newsletter redesign—we’ve found that it’s helpful to have readers who can act as a sounding board for new ideas.”

Business people illustration

‘Innovation Needs to Be Embedded’; As Times Change, Are Our Ideas Keeping Up?

“Different actors require different approaches, and my job is to accommodate them,” Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan said recently, when asked about his process. “I like to read through some of the scenes with actors early on, just to put the words out into the room—see what they sound like.” (He even mentions letting star Cillian Murphy “explore the voice he’d be using.”) Are media organizations letting enough innovative ideas out into the room to see what they sound like?

Speaking about what makes an effective employee onboarding program, Qualtrics’ 2023 State of HR Report states that “right now, there’s an experience gap. Our research showed that, compared to employees who have been with their current employer for more than six months, new starters have a more negative employee experience… To close this experience gap, organizations must redesign their candidate and onboarding experience programs to ensure they meet the expectations of incoming talent.”

The employee onboarding strategies that worked in the past may not work today, the report adds, but then kind of just tails off. This is one example where innovation is called for—especially as organizations deal with remote work issues. But are we getting it?

“I think the industry has a systematic problem with innovation—too much with too little focus,” Lucy Kueng, senior research fellow at Reuters Institute, told WNIP for their report. ”Innovation needs to be embedded in a smart and strategic process, and then setting up the process to match the outcomes needed.”

In a recent media organization survey, only a fourth of respondents currently have a framework in place for innovation and new ideas (26%, up from 20% in 2021), while one-third are working on developing a process to support and grow innovation and new ideas (32%, up from 27% in 2021). That still leaves 42% with no process for innovation in place.

With all that said, here are five suggested paths to innovation:

Allow and stimulate a risk-taking environment. “Create a culture to build trust and collaboration, and breaking down silos…” Tim Hartman, CEO of GovExec, once told us. “Think ambitious experiments and trust each other. If you look around and don’t see that, you have a problem.”  Advises Thomas Seymat, editorial projects and development manager at Euronews: “I would strongly recommend setting up structures or pathways internally for people with innovative ideas where they can find the support of people who ‘have done it before.’” Oscar winning director Sam Mendes often establishes a “safe room” to try to bring out great performances. “I will find out what the actors need,” he said. “My language to each of them has to suit their brain.”

Bring people together, strategically. At BIMS in February, Gemma Postlethwaite, CEO of Arizent, said they have replaced the term “office” with “studio” as a destination for clients to make meaningful connections. What are those meaningful connections? We’re challenging team leaders on how we are going to develop our talent”—especially when it comes to strategic planning and responding to ChatGPT… “What are the meaningful ways to bring people together, to create innovation?” Wrote Fast Company: “If you are going to require employees to come into an office, make sure employees understand what is valuable about that…. Make sure the office environment actually improves productivity. And if you expect innovation, collaboration, or solidarity, make sure you have some way to measure the impact.”

Democratize data. “Make sure data in its various formats is accessible at a company-wide level.” At Industry Dive, the audience and marketing team creates actionable dashboards for the editorial team. “This not only helps us measure more of the things that matter to our audience, but it makes it really easy for our editorial team to get actionable insights that they can make decisions on and can really inform what they’re doing,” said Davide Savenije, their editor in chief. Those insights can lead to innovative coverage of their many verticals.

Celebrate “good fails.” Even ideas that don’t take off can provide meaningful information. “Embracing failure is easier said than done,” said Anita Zielina, former director of news innovation and leadership at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, told us at BIMS a few years ago.. “We like to win and are not so excited about failure. But the culture of failure empowers your team to experiment. If you don’t, you’re not going to have creativity in the room. Experimentation includes failure, and organizations need to live with that. There is no digital product development that doesn’t have unexpected turbulences. But it also allows for agility.”

Avoid the idea of the CEO as a singular leader who is the sole shepherd and generator of brilliant ideas. “Rather than being a ‘Moses’ proclaiming wisdom from a mountaintop, the CEO should be a ‘gardener’ who helps coordinate ideas and takes away roadblocks from experiments,” Zielina said. She encourages leaders to think about whether their organization is prepared for transformation. They must focus on which audiences they want or need to reach, and how to ensure that appropriate resources are prioritized. Integral to this is a “talent pipeline” as well as clarity about the type of work culture you want to instill.


Alayna Hyler Emerging Talent

‘My Strategy Has Been Constant Communication’; IMPACT Award Winner Alayna Hyler Leads by Example at Questex

In the last of our series on our 10 IMPACT Award winners, Alayna Hyler (pictured here third from left at our celebratory Luncheon), associate director, marketing programs at Questex, talks about taking on a leadership role at a major B2B media organization. (She won in the Emerging Talent category.) “I always encourage people to grow in their career toward what they’re passionate about,” she said.

Besides being our Emerging Talent, Alayna Hyler is a rising star on Questex’s Performance Marketing team—the team that delivers on all of Questex’s programs, from advertising to content across 40-plus brands. She acts as the liaison between sales and clients for delivery.

Since Hyler has been the associate director, the revenue her team supports has increased 25.5% YOY. This revenue growth consists of advertising programs that increased by 25.8% and content marketing programs at 24.7%. She was able to deliver on this growth while only increasing cost 13%. She has also transformed how Questex serves its clients by moving to account-based customer service and away from her team supporting individual sales reps.

Hyler has also increased their programmatic revenue streams. By working with an expert in the field, attending a programmatic/ad operations industry event and through her own research, she has started to put improvements and tools in place to grow in this area of business.

Additionally, Hyler saw a gap in being able to define the client satisfaction of Questex’s digital programs and launched an NPS survey for the marketing programs team to send to all clients that run content marketing programs with them. Now, Questex is able to gain feedback on overall satisfaction, quality of leads, quality on content, how likely they are to work with them in the future and project management/client communication.

Get to know Alayna Hyler a little further in this Q&A:

Ronn Levine: How long have you been at Questex?
Alayna Hyler: I am going on five years now. Time moves fast.

I’m told you manage a team of 17 people. Leadership is such a tricky thing these days, especially with the pandemic. How did that come about and how have you grown?
AH: I was working as a marketing program specialist for two years, and at that time our team of five or six people had a big workload. So we had to add additional people. My manager was leaving the company, so I was promoted to manager of the marketing program. I oversaw a group with about nine direct reports, overseeing our science, health care and technology sectors. I was in that position for about a year, and then that boss left the company and I was promoted again. Just having the experience of working in that room for two years gave me a really good idea of what was needed.

What has been your style as a young leader? Is it a matter of just being authentic and yourself with everyone?
AH:  Just being honest and approachable is kind of the way I like to go. Also to be as transparent as possible; that was especially true during Covid. (I started managing people just a few months after Covid started.) My strategy has really been constant communication—check-ins with my direct reports either bi-weekly or weekly. We all have tons of group chats to stay in touch. I always try to be available for a couple minutes. I just try to make sure everyone has all the information they need and all their questions answered.

I’m also told that to date, 14 people have been promoted on your team. That’s quite admirable.
It’s really exciting because I do have a younger team so it’s a pleasure to work with them and see them grow in their careers. I always encourage people to grow towards what they’re passionate about. I saw that the team was beginning to struggle juggling tasks. So I restructured the team, promoting one member to lead a subset in roles that support the backend processes, while promoting two other members to each lead a team focused on client-facing tasks.

Questex has been a member of our association for some time, and your CEO Paul Miller has always been a great partner to us.
AH: Paul is really great at providing direction for the entire company, and I think he’s a really special leader. I seriously believe that he knows every single person in the company. It’s really motivating. Every quarter he does a Town Hall giving some kind of shared information or how we’re doing as a company.

I see that transparency is a theme there. What type of customer outreach are you finding works best these days?
AH: If our client’s goal is brand awareness, then I would suggest something like Web ads on our site or newsletter sponsorship. Webinars are still a great way to get conversions. If lead gen is your goal, emails might be the best way to get your brand out there. We also have many content marketing programs and partnerships that will work with customers. [Hyler launched a process allowing the team to log and track promotions associated with each of their content market programs.] We like any material or content that gets that message out to our clients and reaches their audience.

I also see you played a large part in getting podcast sponsorships there. I know that can involve multiple teams, and it’s now a new revenue stream for your digital business. I’m sure you’re in on your share of meetings.
Yes, this afternoon I’m having a big team meeting—all 18 of us. It’s definitely a challenge as a manager to make sure I’m getting everyone’s input, so having that video component is really important. I don’t want someone to feel like they need to sit on mute the whole time. I want them to feel free to speak up. I always tell them: You are the one working with our clients on a daily basis. You know these processes. So I trust your input and feedback for when I have to make decisions.

Where do you see yourself growing in your role in the next couple of years?
Growth is something that HR encourages for the entire company. For me personally, I’m still learning so much and still being challenged every week. That’s really important for anyone to have in the role that they’re in. I have a fantastic boss that I learn from every single day. I’m just trying to be a sponge and soak all that up for now.

‘Educating Subscribers on the Depth of Coverage’; Add These Ideas to Your Rules of Engagement

“We are redefining the rules of revenue generation by placing subscriber engagement at the heart of our growth strategy,” writes Anjali Iyer, head of lifecycle marketing for The Washington Post, in INMA this week. It makes sense. That group is the most loyal but might be hard to get back if lost. So the Post makes sure to tell subscribers about everything they do. Are we all doing enough of that?

I often hark back to the Medill research last year that reported that “regularity is more important than intensity” when it comes to subscriber/reader retention.

“Habit is more important than intensity,” said Arvid Tchivzhel, senior VP, product, Mather Economics. “I’d rather have someone read one article a day and come back than someone who reads six articles at a time and doesn’t come back for months.”

“This research is significant because it shows the key to success in keeping readers is building habit, whether you’re a general interest metro daily or a weekly business publication with a more upscale audience,” said Tim Franklin, senior associate dean and John M. Mutz chair in local news at Medill. “The formula is the same. Do things that regularly lead readers back to you.”

Of course, newsletters is one of those paths. “Newsletter engagement is powerful,” writes the Post’s Iyer. “Subscribers who sign up for newsletters exhibit a higher level of interest and engagement compared to those who haven’t.”

The Post has also been very big the last few years on “educating subscribers on the depth and breadth of [their] coverage. [It] strengthens our relationship with subscribers and increases their likelihood of remaining engaged.” Iyer points to the importance of “meeting subscribers wherever they are [to] enhance their overall experience.”

Here are more tips for reader engagement:

Learn what topics most drive your audience. In 2022 the National Association of Realtors created the podcast Drive with NAR. It’s been very successful with 3,000 listeners on average and expanding. One episode drew 12,000 listeners—it concerned the safety of Realtors, focusing on two women being stalked. This year they’ll do a 12-part series on safety and put other elements around it. In the Medill study, the business newsletter was surprised to find that their healthcare stories were popular even though that wasn’t their focus. The publisher called it “something of a revelation. We know this is a big healthcare market, but we didn’t have a lot of data around how many subscribers are there because of that.”

Build up and market your popular writers/columnists. That columnist is “worth his or her weight in gold,” said Edward Malthouse, research director of Medill’s Spiegel Research. The Atlantic has about 15 non-subscriber newsletters and five subscriber newsletters with most of those revolving around a popular writer. Up for Debate features Conor Friedersdorf; How to Build a Life keeps up with Arthur C. Brooks; I Have Notes comes from memoirist Nicole Chung and Unsettled Territory highlights the writings of Imani Perry. Neal and EXCEL Award-winning writers certainly attract followings.

Find a habit your readers can latch onto. Of course, The New York Times didn’t pay all that money for Wordle for nothing. (I’ve now seen Artle from a local museum, Worldl by a French web developer about travel, and Quordle which plays like Wordle on steroids.) The Washington Post found that even their most loyal readers needed to be told about their habit-forming benefits, so they “created an email marketing series aimed at benefit education to positively impact both retention and customer lifetime value,” Iyer writes.

Focus on your loyal readers. Medill advised downplaying breaking news for “a balance of content that attracts your most loyal readers, the ones who will subscribe… Put the big photo and headline on the content that serves most of your readers.” Add a newsletter to address the specific, high-traffic niches, they urge. That advice has certainly been followed by large media outlets—the New York Times has an endless page of newsletter titles. They also recommend using “teaser” links to related content at the bottom of stories.

Initiate a comprehensive “onboarding” process for new subscribers. It should include a set of messages highlighting exclusive content and website navigation, said Michael Silberman, EVP, media strategy at Piano. He also recommends emailing daily round-up newsletters to subscribers and making sure that the content that drives frequency is highlighted. “Putting all those pieces together is really important,” he said.

Experiment with additional content areas. The analysis of the business publication found that articles about restaurants and dining ranked in the top four areas of page views by prospective readers, those who visit but aren’t yet subscribing.” Tchivzhel said that makes sense because this particular audience is an affluent one. Experiment with additional content areas—that’s how new verticals are discovered. “We’re really trying to use the data to see how far we can expand our audience outside of traditional business,” one niche business publisher said. “We see some potential opportunities if we put more resources behind those areas.”


‘The Chance to Break That Pattern’; Neal Award Winners Set Bar High for DEI Coverage

Diversity and inclusion have so many layers to it, I was reminded again last night. The three 2023 Neal Award winners for Best DEI Coverage portray that complexity in their content. Endeavor showed that women truckers don’t come in one size and shape. IEEE Spectrum gave readers an inside perspective they would not get elsewhere. And Project Hope demonstrated that health care equality has its own intricacies.

Last night at the National Building Museum here in Washington, D.C., architect Suchi Reddy of Reddymade Architecture and Design spoke about her current installation titled Look Here, featuring high-flying clusters of reflective fractals that expose new facets of this cavernous and historic building.

When going over her firm’s work, Reddy became most animated speaking about the Connective Project in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. The installation consisted of 7,000 sculpturally arranged yellow pinwheels.

“One day when I was leaving the area after a long day, a woman in a wheelchair strode up,” Reddy said. “I was so excited that I went back and escorted her to the ramp we had built [for wheelchairs] to visit.” Reddy’s proud tone of voice confirmed that it was a wonderful moment for her.

This reminded me of a couple things. One was a recent occasion when transportation to an off-site dinner during an industry event did not include wheelchair access. (I learned that Lyft is better than Uber for this.)

I also recalled one of our 2023 Neal Award winners for Best DEI Coverage: Endeavor Business Media’s FleetOwner’s Women in Transportation issue. “This year, FleetOwner spoke with nine different women across the industry’s ranks,” wrote Cristina Commendatore. “Each professional sees the potential that the industry has not only for women, but for the next generation of younger workers in trucking.”

Here are takeaways from the three winners in that special category:

Publish a variety of profiles. Like Reddy’s talk, the Women in Transportation package highlights many types of diversity in its profiles. Sharae Moore is the CEO and founder of SHE Trucking. (I may have to tune into their weekly podcast.) Moore was invited to the White House as part of President Biden’s Trucking Action Plan, and now SHE Trucking partners with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s driver apprenticeship program.

Another profile centered on Lindsey Trent, president and co-founder of Next-Gen Trucking. “High schools—and even middle schools—need more trucking programs if the industry has any chance of recruiting the next generation of talent,” wrote Commendatore. “That’s where the Next-Gen Trucking comes into play.”

Said another profiled woman, master-certified technician Missy Albin, “When people see me and I say what I do as a job, they say ‘no way.’ I am only 120 lb. and when people hear what my profession is, they think that I should be a larger man, strong, and look dirty and that my nails should be dirty.”

Hire more diverse writers. Nothing About Us Without Us comes from one of the rallying cries of the disabled community. “Assistive technologies are often designed without involving the people these technologies are supposed to help. That needs to change,” wrote Harry Goldstein, acting editor-in-chief, IEEE Spectrum, in a preview of the issue and the article titled The Bionic-Hand Arms Race by Britt Young.

“Young, who is working on a book about the prosthetics industry, was in the first cohort of toddlers fitted with a myoelectric prosthetic hand, which users control by tensing and relaxing their muscles against sensors inside the device’s socket.”

“IEEE Spectrum has covered many of these developments over the decades, but generally speaking it has involved able-bodied journalists writing about assistive technology…,” continued Goldstein. “We are fortunate now to have the chance to break that pattern, thanks to a grant, [partly] from the IEEE Foundation… With the grant, Spectrum is launching a multiyear fellowship program for disabled writers.”

We read about wonderful programs that want to diversify our stages—Informa Markets’ Diverse Voices on Stage comes to mind—but we hear less about programs to diversify our writers, designers and photographers.

Use many content platforms. In Project Hope’s Neal Award-winning Health Affairs February 2022 issue on racism and health, “70% of the papers featured a lead author who had never before published in Health Affairs. In total, more than 90 authors and coauthors were published for the first time in Health Affairs with this issue.”

That’s an achievement in itself, but Health Affairs also collaborated with other diverse content creators to include elements that go beyond the traditional journal articles. The issue was so popular with readers that a second theme issue focused on racism and health is planned for October.

Besides the numerous articles on the site, there are videos, a Lunch & Learn recording, Briefings, Professional Development, related podcasts and a very cool StoryMap titled The Problem of the Color Line. With some amazing charts, maps and old photos. If anything the whole project is a bit intimidating.

I just clicked on one of the many articles—The Potential for Bias in Machine Learning and Opportunities for Health Insurers to Address It. “As machine learning is increasingly used in health care settings, there is growing concern that it can reflect and perpetuate past and present systemic inequities and biases,” the article says.