Image by Nikita Kashner, Creative Commons license

So last week, I tried a little experiment. I’ve been wondering for a while what to do about my weekly series “Around the Horn.” It’s the only thing I write for Createquity that’s on a timed schedule (every Monday), and as I’ve cut back my level of writing somewhat due to my new job, I found myself questioning the future of the series. After all, the Around the Horn posts never seem to go anywhere after I write them, and I rarely get any kind of feedback in the form of comments or other reactions, so it was natural of me to wonder whether they were having any impact. So I decided I’d ask readers directly.

As I was putting the question to readers in my weekly missive, I came up with the idea of giving people a more formal way to respond than by just leaving a comment. And while I was at it, I figured I’d make it into a broader questionnaire about a number of issues I’d been wondering about with respect to the blog.  All told, I got 85 responses, which is about a 12-13% response rate depending on how many regular readers there are who are not formally subscribed to this blog’s feed. Respectable for an online poll – probably not a random sample, but I figure that’s okay since (a) I’m more interested in broad strokes of reader opinion than the exact numbers; and (b) the primary bias one would expect is that people who responded are more likely to care a lot about the site, and I’m more interested in their opinions anyway. (Sorry, anyone else who’s reading this…what can I say, you had your chance!)

Before I get into the numbers and the details, I want to offer a few topline takeaways I had from the process itself.

  • This was the best idea I’ve had in a long time. Some of my good ideas take months to marinate in my head before they’re ready. This one, from coming up with the idea for the survey, to designing it in Google Forms, to finishing the post with the link to the published survey, came to fruition on a single Sunday evening. I think every blogger who’s serious about their craft should consider doing a reader poll like this one. I got so much valuable insight into readers’ thoughts that I never would have unearthed otherwise. And all I had to do was ask.
  • Don’t use Google Forms for your polls. I mean, sure, it’s neat, and it’s a useful tool for other purposes (like Createquity Tipster). But Forms offers little of the analytical capability that comes with other survey sites like Qualtrics or even Surveymonkey. And at least in my survey, it’s tallying the responses to one of the questions blatantly incorrectly.
  • “Other” is your friend. It doesn’t always result in the friendliest data, but qualitative responses add incomparable richness to survey results, and if you don’t give people a chance to share them you’ll miss out on a lot.

In fact, doing this survey was actually kind of therapeutic for me because of the completely amazing comments that people left. Here were some of my favorites:

This is the internet as it should be. Keep up the good work. I’m a newly-minted cultural industry consultant (and before that the exec director of a performing arts festival and ensemble-based experimental theatre company in Canada for eleven years). It’s things like Createquity that create a sense of substance, thoughtfulness and interconnectedness to our ‘sector’.

I only discovered Createquity in the last month, yet I already highly recommend and praise it to others. Not sure if my feedback is as important as the thoughts of a longtime reader, but it’s my lunch break and I’m devoting it to this survey regardless. [Wow! Eight more paragraphs of comment follow, including this:] Because of “Around the Horn” I have followed several links to incredibly helpful sources, news, and research. For example, this week’s link to the Kresge Foundation’s new Institutional Capitalization grant program was exactly something my organization was seeking…and you are the reason I got brownie points for bringing this to my higher up’s attention.

You and Paul Krugman (NYT) are my favorite feeds. [Holy crap! -IDM] I’m attending business school next fall, but plan to remain in the arts/nonprofit sector after graduating.  I find that your blog validates my own interests.  Your posts are not only professional and well-researched, but also full of personality and opinion.

I was going to put “never read anything by you again” but wasn’t sure you’d appreciate the joke.  ;-) -dad

So aside from finding out that I made somebody look good at work (sweet!), what else did I get from the results? Well, quite a bit actually.

I learned that most people don’t mind when I cross-post content here that I’ve written for other sites. Over 90% of people who responded to this question told me that they either didn’t care or hadn’t noticed when I do this.  A small minority said it bothered them a little, and only one person asked me to stop – and since that person said they don’t enjoy any of the content here, I’m not exactly sure why they’re reading me at all. This is good news for me since I am getting more offers to guest-blog for various one-off salons, online panel discussions, etc., and it’s great when that content can do double-duty.

I learned that people want more coverage of arts research on the site. Unlike non-arts philanthropy and economics, of which most people said the level of coverage was about right, 35 respondents wanted to see more arts research items as compared with only three who wanted to see less. This is interesting to me because when I asked about the Arts Policy Library, which is the Createquity feature that deals most directly with arts research, a number of people responded that they don’t read it. I also got a few admonitions to keep my posts short, which the APL essays most certainly aren’t. So I’m interested to know what people mean, or thought I meant, when they said they wanted more arts research coverage. Is it just keeping on top of newly published studies, reports, etc.? Or do you all want more of a synthesis, a meta-level guide to what’s out there? In any case, it’s good to know that this is a niche with, apparently, some unmet demand.

I learned that my current posting schedule is in line with people’s preferences. There was a considerable range on this question, but the average response was about twice a week, so that works out well. I think I can do that pretty sustainably.

I learned that a majority of readers want to see more state and local arts policy coverage. This was the most popular of the new ideas with 58% in support, followed by interviews at 44%, and international coverage at 36%. Only 28% want to see more posts by guest authors.

And finally, I learned that Around the Horn is actually the most popular recurring feature on the site. Out of 84 respondents, only one said they didn’t like it, and another nine said they don’t read it. That leaves a whopping 88% who gave it the thumbs up, more than the 70% who like the Arts Policy Library, 76% who enjoy New Blogs, and 63% who heart the conference live-blogging and wrap-ups. (Not surprisingly, my attempts to unload my own music upon an unsuspecting readership garnered the lowest marks, at 32%. Too bad guys, it ain’t lettin’ up anytime soon.)

And therein lies my dilemma. When asked for suggestions for Around the Horn, a majority of you, 54%, wanted me to “keep it going as is.” No one said I should dump it. Yet I realized after I did the poll that the reason I asked what to do about Around the Horn in the first place is because I feel keeping it as is is simply not an option. To be blunt about it, I don’t want half of all of my posts for Createquity to be link round-ups. It only serves to put ideas that have been smoldering in my head on a further back burner, and puts me in what I feel is a reactive stance relative to whatever conversations other people are having instead of giving me an opportunity to help move those conversations forward by generating fully original content. If I still harbored ambitions to write for Createquity every day, as I once did, I wouldn’t mind at all continuing Around the Horn the way it is. But for right now, I just don’t think that’s going to be realistic.

So what to do? Obviously, ATH fulfills a need out there. It’s not about the aggregation, it seems; many of you wrote eloquently that you enjoy my commentary and editorial selections, and wouldn’t want it to become just another link list or Twitter feed. So what I’m going to try to do is give you what you want in a way that works better for me. I’m not sure yet exactly what that way is going to be, as I think it’s going to take some trial and error. But I’m thinking I will probably experiment with several of these strategies and see what works:

  • I’m going to liberate Around the Horn from its weekly rotation. I think at least half of my stress around ATH is simply the deadline, the feeling that I HAVE to keep it up no matter what. I’m going to try loosening up the schedule a bit and posting the round-ups whenever it seems appropriate and I have time. Hopefully that will help.
  • I’m going to try to write more short posts reacting to items I read in the meantime. Since a number of people noted that it’s my commentary that they liked most about ATH, I will try to expand that a little and be more selective and purposeful about it. In the meantime, I will try to funnel stories and posts that I find notable but don’t have much to say about to Twitter, which is clearly built for that sort of thing, with possible re-posting to the blog.
  • I’m going to experiment with crowdsourcing it — eventually. I think realistically it’s going to take a while to get enough of the right contributors on board to entrust a shared approach to ATH. If you’re interested in working on this with me, do get in touch; but for the rest of you, it’s probably going to continue to be a solo effort for the immediate future.

Anyway, look at that, it’s been another super-long post from Createquity – and this one was all meta, even! But seriously, thank you all so much for your support – it means the world to me to know that I’ve helped to make a difference in some of your lives with my writing, and I hope to continue to do so for a long time to come.

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  • http://www.smartsandculture.com Maryann Devine

    Hi Ian.

    I’m one of those respondents who said she enjoyed Around the Horn, but honestly? If it’s keeping you from putting out your own ideas, I’d scrap it or put it into much lower rotation.

    It’s your OWN analysis and point of view that makes Createquity a must-read blog for arts people.

    Cheers,

    Maryann

  • http://www.sachsmorganstudio.com Ann Sachs

    Hooray! Not to get all trendy on you, Ian, but this is your brand that you’ll take with you wherever you go. As one of your (addicted?!) readers, I am thrilled that you will continue with “Around the Horn”. If you have to miss a Monday, just hang a sign on the site that says OUT TO LUNCH or something. We’ll be back.

    Regarding “Other” being your friend – a resounding yes! In my experience, it always elicits the stuff that’s hard to hear but important to know.

    Once again, BRAVO.

    Ann

  • http://www.zackhayhurst.wordpress.com Zack Hayhurst

    I was one of the 80 or so that took the survey.

    First, let me say I understand your survey concerns. I recently designed a survey for the arts organization I work for to better gauge student and young professional attitudes towards attending performing arts events. We got about 70 responses. The intention was to better understand what they wanted, hence allowing us to better craft our marketing, but the results only yielded more questions.

    Second, I would like to reiterate my keen interest for more research on your site. I am in grad school currently for arts administration, and I eat the stuff up. Any new research I can find around “participation”, “impact studies”, or “funding issues”, I find compelling.

    Lastly, I simply want to say, thank you and good work. The ATH posts serve as my weekly mental re-calibration towards thinking about arts issues. Even if they were less frequent, or as frequent but less robust, I would still look forward to them.

    Congrats on Fracture Atlas.

    Cheers!