Farm Progress Publications Readership Studies, 1952-2009 | University of Illinois Archives
Series 1: Farm Progress Publications Readship Studies and Opinion Polls, arranged chronologically
(The summary of what is contained in these records was written by Professor James Evans [8/3/36] who donated this material to the University of Illinois in 2008)
Several periodicals among those published by the Farm Progress Companies have had a comprehensive research program for many years: Wallaces Farmer (serving Iowa), Wisconsin Agriculturist and Prairie Farmer (serving Illinois and later Indiana). This research program has involved readership studies and opinion polls, both done by personal interview and mail surveys. Some other farm publications employed research organizations to conduct limited readership studies during the period covered by these contributed materials. However, no other farm publications of that period had their own staffs of interviewers to carry out such extensive readership research and opinion polling.
Independent research firms such as Starch Inc. conducted some of the readership studies during later years.
These pioneering readership studies and opinion polls were started by long-time editor Donald R. Murphy during 1938 in Iowa, and during 1939 in Wisconsin. Prairie Farmer instituted the studies in about 1952. Two readership studies were conducted each year. They were made by personal interview, using farm women and men recruited through the magazines. Readership studies involved aided recall, in which respondents were invited to describe their readership (noted, read some, read most) of articles and advertisements, page by page throughout the issue. All editorial articles and all ads of one-fourth page or larger were included for response. Readership scores were cross-analyzed by gender, age, education and income of the reader, as well as by other characteristics considered important.
The researchers selected modified area probability samples representative of all farm subscribers. Readership studies involved "split-run" techniques with two slightly different versions of the issue going into alternate counties. Samples were large enough to allow comparison of readership of two different versions of a number of advertisements or editorial articles. The purpose was to determine which version scored higher and to try to continually build higher readership based on research findings.
Early tests resulted in substantially higher readership scores in Wallaces Farmer and Wisconsin Agriculturist as editors tested new ideas to boost readership. Advertisers also were encouraged to run split-run tests to improve their advertising readership.
Beyond the immediate value to those periodicals, findings from this body of research have also proven valuable to agricultural and other editors throughout the nation, and across the years. Findings served as the basis of an influential 1962 book that Murphy wrote, summarizing some results of these readership studies in Wallaces Farmer and Wisconsin Agriculturist between 1938 and 1961:
Donald R. Murphy, What farmers read and like. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1962.
In the opinion of Professor Evans, the Murphy book is only one indicator of the substantial research potential to be found in these detailed readership studies conducted across decades. Findings hold unique potential for further longitudinal research related to agricultural reporting (across many agricultural topics) and agricultural advertising (across many marketers and categories of products and services).
These farm periodicals conducted opinion polls for two main purposes: (1) provide information about farmer opinions, farming practices, etc., from a far wider sample of farmers than editors themselves could contact in their normal travels and (2) provide materials for articles for the magazines.
By the late 1970s, two opinion polls were conducted each year in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin. Statewide area probability samples representative of all farm people in each state were used. Sample size was about 250 men and 250 women in each state, except Indiana where about 200 men and 200 women were interviewed.
Opinion polls were primarily an editorial function with each editor and/or his staff preparing questions to be included in the poll. The number of questions asked in each poll ranged from about 80-90, including a number of standard and demographic questions used for validating the sample and cross-tabulation purposes. Research staff members put the questions and questionnaires into final form and handled all aspects of gathering information, tabulating results and reporting results to the editorial departments. Poll stories were usually among the highest scoring articles in the magazine. Over the years, these periodicals received much publicity from both local and national media, base on poll results. Election polls particularly attracted much interest.
Also included are readership award winners, which identify awards for most-read advertisements (1962-1975), brief summaries of readership of ads based on size and color, instructor booklet for interviewers of reader interest studies, Sioux County (Iowa) survey of crops publications, and readership survey research methods and sampling methods.
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