AIN Blog: Talking to 35,633 People

 - May 3, 2012, 7:28 AM
BJT has more than 35,000 readers, and they're all different.
BJT has more than 35,000 readers, and they're all different. (Photo: Roger Bain)

Naturally, the editors of Business Jet Traveler hope that you’ll find every article we publish to be tailor-made for your needs. But of course that’s impossible: last time I checked, we had 35,633 subscribers and—beyond the fact that they presumably share an interest in business aviation—they’re all different. Some of them love golf; others have never set foot on a golf course. Some want to know all the technical details about the aircraft they fly on; others just want to sit in the cabin and enjoy a memorable Chardonnay. Some have a favorite FBO in every city they visit; others haven’t a clue what an FBO is.

Given such varying tastes and backgrounds, how do we decide what to cover and how to cover it? One way is to conduct reader surveys, which we do with some regularity. We ask subscribers which articles they’ve read, skimmed, plan to read or don’t plan to read. We also garner in-depth reactions to what we publish from occasional one-on-one conversations with selected readers.

We pay great attention to all this feedback, but we don’t follow it blindly. For one thing, say only 20 percent of BJT’s subscribers have read or plan to read a particular story. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound good. And it may in fact be a sign that we should avoid the story’s topic—but not until we’ve considered just how much the article meant to the one in five who did read it. Perhaps for them, coverage of the subject is the most important reason they pick up the magazine. If so, it’s a topic we’d better not discard.

We also keep in mind that simply giving readers the publication they think they want is a recipe for predictability. A truly innovative and exciting magazine will publish some stories that subscribers don’t realize they want until they read them. As Steve Jobs once said, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Finally, we try hard to edit our articles in ways that will make sense to all or at least most of our readers—those who may know a subject inside out and those who know next to nothing about it. This isn’t easy, especially given that BJT has subscribers all over the world. What is obvious in one country may be unknown in another. And even within one country, people often live in different worlds.

Consider an incident that occurred back when I was editor of Phoenix magazine in Arizona. Classical violinist Itzhak Perlman was coming to town to perform and one of my staff writers composed a calendar item about him. In the item, he mentioned that Perlman had earned wide acclaim and won many awards for his musicianship. Then, in an attempt at being clever, he finished with, “Impressive, but can he dance?”

Unfortunately, the writer had no idea that the violinist had had polio at age four and now used crutches and performed while seated. And though I was familiar with Perlman’s music, I’d yet to see him perform and didn’t know that, either. We learned of our blunder only after the magazine had reached newsstands and mailboxes.

A day or so later, I received a call from an indignant classical music buff who called our item “utterly tasteless.” I apologized profusely and explained that the writer and I simply hadn’t known that Perlman had had polio.

“I find it impossible to believe,” she replied, her voice rising, “that any reasonably sophisticated person today could be unaware of Itzhak Perlman’s condition.”

“That may be hard for you to imagine because you’re obviously so involved with classical music,” I said. “But people live in different worlds. Some people probably don’t know that Stevie Wonder is blind.”

“Who’s Stevie Wonder?” she answered.

Her response made my point, at least as far as I was concerned.

I’ve never forgotten that incident. It helps to remind me that a magazine’s readers approach its pages with widely varying backgrounds, knowledge and interests. Our goal is to do our best to edit Business Jet Traveler for all of you. Please keep the feedback coming and let us know how well you think we’re succeeding at that.