MAGAZINES RENDER NEW LOOKS TO AID READERS
Debby Hartke, Contributing Editor
Changing the look and format of a magazine is hard work. And when readers say they want a lot of information, but they don't have a lot of time, it presents a real challenge.
Several ag publications have revamped over the last year or so. Two that have recently been redesigned serve the pork industry, which itself has gone through much rapid change and consolidation. National Hog Farmer, published by Intertec Publishing, a Primedia Company, debuted its new look in mid-January. Pork, a Vance Publishing publication, unveiled its changes with its September 1999 issue.
In both cases, ongoing readership and industry research served as catalysts for change.
ROUTINE RESEARCH GOT BALL ROLLING
In the fall of 1998, National Hog Farmer conducted routine reader research, which touched on the issue of story length. That got the ball rolling.
"Our readers are busy," says Wayne Bollum, publisher of National Hog Farmer. "They don't want to read everything, but they want to read important things. We want to help them wade through it."
One of the downsides of a redesign is a "certain reluctance to admit that what you've been doing for a certain period of time is not adequate for the future. But our philosophy of being a leading publication overrode all that," Bollum says.
National Hog Farmer conducted internal focus groups with staff, led by a facilitator from within Intertec. The magazine also held focus groups with advertisers to get their input on what they liked about the magazine and about competitive magazines.
Further reader research tested proposed departments, subject matter and general direction of the magazine.
"Every magazine at Intertec is run a little differently, but with guidance from the company," Bollum says. "Internal corporate people help us out. They tell us what's worked at other Intertec-owned magazines. It helped us make sure we were pushing at the proper pace."
Fifteen months after the process began, the new look rolled out with the mid-January issue. The magazine staff plans more research for the second quarter of 2000 to see if the publication is moving in the right direction.
"It was a relatively scientific method," Bollum says, "but there also were some qualitative and subjective changes."
Two basic areas that deal with how information is delivered - graphics and content - saw changes.
"We describe our new design as cleaner, crisper," says editor Dale Miller.
To answer reader requests for "quick reads," some articles are shorter, with more details offered on the publication's Web site, Miller says.
The logo was changed to "send a signal of boldness," Bollum says. "The statement that this is a solid, business-like platform makes sense. We're dealing with a younger typical reader in the hog business than in some other ag industry segments. We want to look like we are right for the 21st century."
RESEARCH POINTED OUT NEEDS
Sophisticated research of producers in different demographic groups allowed Pork to learn exactly where producers' information needs were high and where those needs weren't being met.
"Research offered us crystal-clear direction about what we needed to do to fill that void," says Pork Publisher Bill Newham. "The tough thing about making changes is understanding where those changes need to be made. Research is one thing. Interpretation is another thing altogether."
Focus groups held in the spring of 1997 offered clues that readers' needs and habits were changing. That research was followed by the publication's regular, periodic pork industry structure study conducted with National Pork Producers Council and the University of Missouri in the spring of 1998.
Newham then enlisted Vance Research to do extensive research that summer involving 5,000 producer owners representing three production size groups. That research examined producers' attitudes and priorities, and how the different producer demographic profiles valued different types and sources of information.
"The good thing was that, regardless of the demographic group, producers still preferred to receive their information from magazines and still got most of their information from magazines," Newham says.
The research allowed Pork to determine where significant gaps existed between information producers valued and what they were receiving.
"This was really crucial in helping us to devise our redesign," Newham says.
Pork editor Marlys Miller says, "A few of the big messages were that our readers don't have much time to spend with any information vehicle, so they want information to be delivered quickly and concisely, in an understandable and thorough format." To meet this need, the publication now offers more "bite-sized" pieces.
"We aren't sacrificing details but we're presenting shorter features, with more graphs, sidebars and what we call information entry points," she says.
The Pork staff first introduced the new look to advertisers at World Pork Expo last June. They produced a short video for use in their presentations that featured pork producers, along with Miller and Newham, discussing industry changes. AM
Debby Hartke is a writer and communications consultant based in St. Louis, Mo.