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Sampling of readers helps us 'focus' on best changes

July 27, 2008|By TERRY HEADLEE

When a company wants to roll out a major change to its customers, it sometimes tests the idea first with focus groups.

Focus groups might be small in number, but they can be a wealth of information, as we found out last week.

More than 50 loyal and occasional readers - who were randomly selected - were invited to review some prototypes of a redesigned Herald-Mail that we plan to launch in early October.

We held the focus group sessions at Antietam Cable and 48 people showed up.

The readers sat in a conference room and reviewed our prototypes while we watched them on a closed-circult television.

Yes, the readers knew were watching and listening to their comments. And no, they didn't seem to hold much back.

They appeared to like a lot of what they saw, which includes some significant changes to most of our section fronts and inside pages.

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Some ideas were hits, such as a new seven-day sports calendar, placing food photos directly above the recipes, redesigned obituaries and a comic page feature where we will rotate a new comic strip in each month and let readers vote on whether to keep it.

I also was surprised to see how many readers say they will follow a longer story to a second page (we call these "jumps") as long as it is of interest. They also liked the fact that we will continue to jump all of our front-page stories to the second page.

Other ideas received lukewarm responses, particularly from loyal readers, that included eliminating one of our two advice columnists (Dear Abby). For the record, we probably won't do this.

Some readers thought we ran boring photos too large (they're right) and others didn't like several of our proposed front-page mastheads because it was quite a change from our traditional one. We also are considering eliminating our daily stocks page, but will keep the three-page weekly stocks wrap-up on Saturdays and will provide stocks listings online.

The biggest change we will be making will be reducing the width of the paper by 1 1/2 inches. It will continue to be the same length, but soon will be 11 inches wide.

Reducing the width of our paper is being done for economical and environmental reasons and is something that has been done or will be done at most newspapers.

I was both concerned and curious about the reader reaction to this change and was surprised when many didn't notice when they were handed the prototypes. Even when it was pointed out to them, they didn't seem to care much. Several readers said it made the paper "easier to handle."

Each session lasted close to two hours, so we watched the participants for more than eight hours as they pored over dozens of concept designs and content changes.

In all, our consultant led the focus groups through 32 news pages and a revamped 12-page Loop section (our weekly entertainment guide).

From here, we will review our notes and develop a final version of our newspaper by the end of August.

We will make a concerted effort to make sure the paper contains the content you want and that it is easy to find.

The new version will be rolled out by October.

That's when the rest of you can let us know what you think.

And something tells me you probably will.

Terry Headlee is executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7594, or by e-mail at terryh@herald-mail.com.

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