July 21, 2016

You want your audience to engage with your news product: read it, value it, think about it, talk about it, share it, return to it and trust it.

So you have to understand your audience’s behaviors, needs and motivations to create stories and products that are valuable and engaging. The deepest, most accurate understanding of your audience comes from quantitative and qualitative research.

Here are the pros and cons of surveys–one of the major methods to gather data about your audience.


  • Surveys can be anonymous, which is useful for sensitive topics.
  • Surveys allow you to generalize your findings. If you talk to the right sample of people, called a statistically valid random sample, and have a high enough response rate, you can generalize to the entire population. This allows you to make broad statements about a population or group’s likely motivations or behavior. Population trends can be very attractive to advertisers and for big programming or content-related decisions.
  • Surveys are pretty easy to implement online, making data easy to collect and analyze quickly.
  • Surveys are easily repeatable. That means you can test changes in the audience across time.


  • Online surveys are not always representative of the entire population. This is especially true if some members of your potential audience do not have or regularly use email.
  • Doing surveys right takes time. You need to carefully craft questions to ensure they are high-quality, valid and reliable. Have friends and family take the survey to make sure it makes sense.
  • Surveys are good for trends but not good for rich detail because you have a limited ability to probe. You will not understand the narrative of someone’s media use simply because he or she took your survey.
  • Surveys can be costly. You may have to buy a list of respondents or hire someone to implement your survey.

Taken from Understanding Audiences and Their Behavior, a self-directed course by Rachel Davis Mersey at Poynter NewsU.

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Vicki Krueger has worked with The Poynter Institute for more than 20 years in roles from editor to director of interactive learning and her current…
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