If business success is defined by having a presence in a market, and with that presence, show resilience and longevity, and build universal respect, then Readex Research is very successful.
The company, based in Stillwater, Minnesota, has roots going back to the middle of the last century. In recent decades, Readex has been a ubiquitous presence on the B2B and association-media scene, providing a variety of research services around both advertising and audience data.
President and CEO Jack Semler has been with the company since 1982. He’s seen the vast changes in the media landscape as it transformed from a print-media centric model to one focused not on the channel, but the audience, reached through many different channels. The traditional B2B media model held for 12 years into Semler’s tenure at Readex. Then, beginning in the mid-nineties, disruption came in relentless waves, starting with the emergence of the commercial internet and the web browser in 1994.
But in these last 29 years, Readex has endured and adapted through the changes, and today it has an array of services that’s kept it at the forefront of media research. Fox Tales caught up with Semler to talk about his company’s transformation and his unique perspective on the business. Here’s a transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.
Fox Tales: Jack, on your website, you mention that you saw the rise of the internet early and pivoted accordingly. Tell us about how that worked internally, and also what new products are most popular among your clients.
Jack Semler: The pivot started to take shape in about 1997. Quite honestly, we had an IT director with an excellent vision and he started the conversation about the need to be out front with “internet-based data collection.”
At the time, all of our work was mail based, so this new way of doing things was quite disruptive primarily because of the time factor. The time that we had to dedicate to developing an online capability, with limited IT resources, caused some battles. Ultimately we had to hire additional help, and over a multi-year period we were able to start doing online surveys.
Of course, in those early days, we were limited by the number of email addresses that our clients had for survey purposes. And, since there were limited emails, this presented important research considerations. What I mean is this: If a publication or association had emails of only 10% of their total population, was that good enough? Were those 10% really representative of the population as a whole? Long story short, experiments indicated that for the most part, there were not big differences. The exceptions rose to the top when we asked questions regarding internet usage!
I should also mention the other research consideration: response rates. There were big differences in response between online and physical-mail methodologies. Those differences caused great pain and angst in our research group. Over time, however, the cost difference between mail and online drove many clients online no matter the other considerations.
I can’t say that the onset of online data collection spurred a lot of new products. This said, it did make it easier for a wider group of customers to do research. Looking back, the time period of 2003 to 2008 was absolutely terrific from a sales and earnings perspective.
Fox Tales: If there’s a distinction between association clients and for-profit ones, describe those differences.
Semler: Well, the first difference is that associations realize one of their most important benefits to membership is the publication. That means the book is going to be produced no matter what. To be fair, there is serious questioning going on now about the value of producing a publication, no matter the frequency. However, when the conversation comes back to member value and member benefits, the publications usually remain as part of the offering.
This may be why another difference I see is a stronger interest among association clients in content research—in other words, using research to understand what content types are most helpful and useful to the audience. Not to say that this is unimportant to for-profit operators, it’s just a more prevalent research topic for our association customers.
Salary and benefits research is another topic that comes up way more often in conversation with association customers. This does make sense as this kind of information is not only a great service to the members and industry, but it can also be a source of revenue.
One other point. I don’t have the sense or feeling that most associations think of their organizations as the information leader of their industry. When you think about it, an association has prime resources to generate and own all kinds of data and information. It’s an enviable position in which to be, but I don’t see this being exploited on a widespread basis.
Fox Tales: Is digital-ad measurement or audience-engagement tracking more difficult in a multi-channel world?
Semler: Measuring how viewers react to digital ads is something that we do, much like we do ad-effectiveness studies with print ads. However, measuring overall exposure to digital ads and engagement tracking across multiple digital platforms is certainly more challenging, but not unlike tracking issues we’ve had all along. As it concerns engagement tracking, there are methods through which this can be accomplished, in particular, requiring user registration or deploying cookies.
Fox Tales: Continuing on the topic of new products, the business started with ad readership/ad effectiveness surveys. What’s the array of product offerings at Readex now, and which are most popular? How are surveys conducted most frequently now (channel, methodology)? Where does most of your revenue come from?
Semler: Let me start with the last question. As strange as it may seem, the largest portion of our revenue comes from what we call our Mail Survey Solutions business. Readex started in the late forties conducting survey research through the mail. We still have that capability today, and we offer our mail and paper survey service to other firms, including other research companies. There are many, many applications for a mail/paper survey. Our role is to serve as a quiet, seamless partner. However, the majority of our project starts are online. This is because the number of projects we do for associations and media brands are in the hundreds and 90% of them are online.
The array of services offered has grown over time as we have become more adept with online capabilities. This includes a broader variety of ad-effectiveness studies, custom-survey services (such as reader/user profiles) and proprietary research. The most popular studies, in terms of volume, continue to be ad-effectiveness studies and profile research. Following closely behind would be member needs and experience research.
Fox Tales: You’ve been at Readex since 1982. How does that longevity inform your perspective and the company’s mission?
Semler: What informs my perspective the most are the mistakes and failures over that long period of time. I try not to live in the past, but those mistakes and failures do provide a terrific backdrop for better performance on my part. What this means is that I need to clearly articulate just what the mission is, articulate value drivers, which are at the heart of the mission, and paint a clear picture as to where we are going. Then we work with the executive-operations team to build objectives.
I feel as if I have been doing a better job at communicating with our team and delegating. It’s manifesting itself in better performance for customers and a better experience. I’ve also had a change of heart as it concerns financials. All numbers are shared. I think this gives everyone more buy in and understanding of what really matters in the business and what doesn’t.
Fox Tales: You mention that your core markets remain the focus—less important is branching out into other business areas. These days, it seems as though B2B media and association media are both resilient and often lucrative. Ten or 15 years ago, it didn’t seem that way. What’s your perspective on that?
Semler: Yes, B2B media and associations (including media and membership) are very resilient. This is particularly true with organizations that have diversified their brand portfolios to include print, events and digital.
At the same time, because there has been a significant focus in the last several years on digital, I think we are at a crossroads. Those brands that have a print product need to step back and assess how much emphasis they wish to place on print going forward. In other words, is print worth it? If so, there needs to be a plan as to how to support print in the sales process and a dedication to that process.
As for our core markets, media, association media, association membership and mail/paper surveys, there is room to grow and thrive. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to start looking elsewhere for new revenues. This is because it’s not about me. I’m a senior citizen. It’s really about the young people in the firm and what we need to do now to guarantee a solid business down the line.
Fox Tales: How does a company like Fox Associates partner with Readex? Is it synergistic? Making the question specifically about Fox, describe their approach and their value to you—and to the market.
Semler: We very much value our relationship with Fox Associates. In many respects, we are in the same boat, working for many of the same media and association customers. It seems to me that our ultimate goals match up even though we provide different services: that is, we create value for our customers while providing them a terrific experience.
My feeling is that both Fox and Readex function similarly as it concerns the client relationship. We both seek to understand what the needs and interests are, then provide appropriate solutions. In the case of Readex, it just so happens that what we do helps the Fox team bring in more business for their customers through various survey services. But we just do the research. Fox is out there in the trenches making it happen.