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What Online Cover Testing Can and Can't Do

For starters, don't think it can replace response analysis in a retail context.

Linda Ruth By Linda Ruth
06/29/2011 -12:51 PM


Online cover testing can certainly tell you quite a lot about your audience and its wants and needs. Jamie Trowbridge of Yankee magazine surveys his online panel every issue; newsstand sales of Yankee have been climbing since he began that practice. Another publisher I spoke to remarked that online cover testing changed everything he thought he knew about his newsstand audience.

One thing it cannot do is completely replace an assessment of your cover’s response at retail—not if your purpose in online testing is to determine what covers and topics will work at retail. So there are limits to what testing online can tell you about your audience. Earlier this week Richard Alleger, Rodale’s newsstand VP, called to talk about the opportunities and limitations of online cover testing.

In the early 1980s I sat next to Richard at an industry event and asked him what RDA was; and he was kind enough to tell me all about it. So I’m always interested in what he has to say, and never more so than when what he says is that he likes my blog.

Rodale, Richard told me, has been doing online cover testing since the mid-1990s, which surely makes the company a pioneer in the field. The first title they tested was Scuba Diving. Richard has found over the years that the more targeted a title is the more valid the outcomes of cover testing. And Scuba Diving was targeted on many levels: geographically; by its specialty retailers; and by its passionately-involved vertical audience. As a result, Rodale was able to go into Florida with a three-way cover split tracked by demographic area and run the same split online. What impressed them was how closely the online results tracked the newsstand split results.

Rodale did find that the variance between newsstand and online didn’t hold up from title to title or category to category. The rule of thumb was: the broader its audience, the wider the swing. For some of their publications they could take what they could learn from an online vote and comfortably run with it; for others they found that the correlation just didn’t hold up. The key was to running the real world test along with the online test until benchmarks could be established and a level of comfort achieved.

Differences Remain

No matter how close the level of correlation, however, there will still be differences between a print split and an online one. Everyone who has worked with covers on a computer monitor learns that the level of visibility of cover lines and the clarity of images can change pretty dramatically from screen to print, and an image that is rich and evocative on screen can turn into something pallid and featureless on a print cover. Also, the online audience is not faced with an actual buying decision; they might feel that a particular cover might motivate them to buy, but in the store itself the impulse might not be that great. A cover that is pretty to look at online might merit a positive response in the survey and just not deliver the benefits or make the sale at retail.

The technology for online cover testing remains a frustration for many. While it is possible to create a cover test in which images are selected randomly and displayed for only a few seconds, it isn’t as easy or inexpensive as one would hope. Consequently, most publishers opt for the simpler approach of just allowing the online panel to see and vote on prospective covers.

For smaller publishers, getting new participants into an online panel is another challenge. While no one wants to wear out the group that volunteered in the first place, pulling enough new people in to keep a fresh and statistically-significant panel online is not easy; and many publishers end up relying on the same group issue after issue and year after year.

So no, online cover testing is not yet perfect. But, as we found at Yankee, an online audience can be great at delivering surprises. A cover that is pegged for a winner can get an unexpected thumbs-down; or an audience can be enthusiastic about a topic for which the editors were on the fence.

And over time trends emerge. A lifestyle publication that wasn’t sure if its focus was business or gardening or history found that its readers were looking for travel tips. Certain words and phrases continually rise to the top.

Differences remain. The online audience has time to read more words. As Richard pointed out, “online you find your readers might respond to:  ‘you can get thin if you monitor these three factors in your daily diet.’  At retail, that translates to: ‘Get Thin Now!’”  

The basic topic and keywords carry over, and you’ve learned something important about your audience.


Linda Ruth is Principal of Publisher Single Copy Sales Services. Her book of case studies, "How to Market Your Magazine on the Newsstand," is available at BookDojo.com and at Amazon.

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