Providing timely and relevant information to the Wisconsin urban forestry community is a key role of the Wisconsin DNR Urban Forestry program. One of the ways in which this goal manifests itself is through a monthly newsletter received by 5,555 subscribers (May 2019). In order to ensure that the newsletter content is relevant and timely, the Urban Forestry program surveyed subscribers in spring 2019. Results are shown and interpreted below and suggestions made for future newsletter editions.
One hundred and thirty-four subscribers responded to the survey out of a possible 5,555 (response rate = 2.4%). These respondents came from many backgrounds, the biggest groups being from local governments (29%) and the private sector (26%). Respondents were also geographically distributed across the state, with the only counties achieving 10%+ representation in response being from Milwaukee (12%) and Dane (11%) counties.
A large majority of respondents were satisfied with newsletter content (82%) and timeliness (86%), and most were satisfied with its frequency (77%). Though there was widespread appreciation for the newsletter, there were clearly topics of greater interest to respondents. Plant health was of particular interest to subscribers, with the highest rates of relevance given to Invasive plants, Pests, and Disease. Other high scoring topics (> 80% combined high and fair relevance) included Did You Know (urban forest miscellanea), Publications, Regulations, Research, Taking action and Technology.
Just over half of respondents (52%) have been receiving the newsletter for more than three years, and, excluding those readers who had been subscribed to the previous newsletter iteration (The Insider), most people found out about the newsletter directly through the Wisconsin DNR website. The vast majority of respondents were timely email readers, opening the newsletter either within 24 hours (43%) or within a week (98%).
Survey Results and Discussion
Newsletter Quality and Relevance
The majority of readers were satisfied with the general content of Urban Forestry News (Question 5), with 43% being very satisfied and 39% being somewhat satisfied (82% total); seventeen percent were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. These results mark a clearly positive view of the newsletter.
However, there were obvious topic preferences from readership (Question 7). Content related to forest health were the only topics about which more than half of respondents found highly relevant. Pests (65%), Disease (65%) and Invasive plants (64%) led the field, but when combined with topics that were fairly relevant to readers, other topics also rose to the top. These included Research (94% total relevance), Taking action (86%), Technology (85%) and Regulations (84%). See Figure 1 for a full breakdown of results.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the lowest ratings for relevance (highly and fairly) included Awards (24%), Financial help (61%), Partners (61%) and Inventory (68%). Despite low scoring amongst all readership, article page views counters some assumptions we would make about these topics. For example, a February 2019 article on awards was visited 400 times, more than twice the average article’s visitation. This may indicate that, though awards might not attract widespread interest, smaller populations are very interested in the topic.
Interestingly, many topics received significant (20%+) amounts of people unsure of their opinion. Awards, Inventory, Partners, and Recreation all elicited substantial uncertainty, perhaps indicating that the topic name was confusing or overly broad.
Forty-nine additional comments were submitted, many of which offered suggestions for how the newsletter could be improved. While most were unique submissions and difficult to summarize, some themes were repeated. There seemed to be a common interest in species selection advice for tough urban sites (e.g. what species are encouraged for street boulevards), while others wanted advice on species selection and treatment with regards to climate change and other environmental disruptions. Many people also desired more stories on what is working well in other communities. Finally, a few respondents noted that they preferred the old printed publication, The Insider.
Newsletter Frequency, Timeliness and Responsiveness
Half of all respondents preferred the monthly frequency of the newsletter (Question 4), while 27% had no preference. This amounted to 77% of respondents being satisfied with the current frequency of the newsletter, with the remaining preferring a frequency of every two or three months.
Almost half of all respondents were also very satisfied with the timeliness of information in the newsletter, and 37% were somewhat satisfied (Question 6). Eighty-six percent of readers feel the newsletter is thus satisfactorily sent with regards to time. The quickness by which subscribers read the newsletter also reflects their attentiveness (Question 3). Forty-three percent of respondents read the newsletter within 24 hours of receiving it while 55% read it within a week. Any timely information that is communicated through the newsletter (e.g. the availability of catastrophic storm grants) can be assumed to be consumed in a reasonable timeframe.
Newsletter subscribers come from across the state, with unsurprising peaks in subscriber geography in Milwaukee and Dane counties (Question 9). While there is generally a linear relationship between county population and number of subscribers, this is not absolute. For example, there was only one respondent in Racine County, the fifth most populous in the state, while four people responded in Portage County, ranked 20th in Wisconsin. It is also noteworthy that 8% of respondents work out-of-state and for that subset, employment demographics skewed toward the private sector.
Otherwise, local government was the most common place of employment for respondents at 29%, followed closely by the private sector at 26% (Question 10). This tracks with the focus of the DNR’s Urban Forestry program on municipal forestry staff, and secondarily with partners who aid and provide resources to homeowners (industry leaders, utility professionals, arborists, etc.). Surprisingly, about 14% of respondents were retired, possibly indicating former professionals still active as volunteers in the urban forestry world.
While many newsletter recipients were previously subscribed to The Insider (29%), sixty-five percent of the remainder subscribed directly from the DNR website (Question 1). This is the dominant way the DNR has attracted new recipients, though urban forestry staff have also signed up about 19% of the newer subscribers.
Over half (52%) of readers have been receiving the newsletter for more than three years (Question 2). This indicates strong value as readers do not choose to unsubscribe. Fourteen percent are relatively new subscribers (>1 year), and 23% have been subscribed 1-3 years.
Suggestions and Next Steps
The survey results above indicate general satisfaction with the content and frequency of the newsletter. There is no strong call to alter the monthly nature of the newsletter, nor is there any need to radically alter the information communicated in the newsletter. However, there are some changes that the Urban Forestry program could make to better improve the relevance and appeal of the newsletter:
- Include more success stories. An easy avenue to share more success stories is to document in the newsletter what was shared in regional networking meetings. Coordinators could write (or partners guest write) a summary of what a particular community is doing.
- Periodically identify species of interest, perhaps at critical times before spring planting or before trees would be ordered. Potentially, when new recommendations are released from reputable sources (e.g. University of Minnesota’s Gary Johnson), an article is written about them. Networking groups might do this already, but it should be extended to the wider newsletter audience.
- Offer timely, summarized research, and offer ways in which the research could be put into practice.
- Be intentional and creative with article headlines and consider altering e-mail subject lines. For instance, current subject lines generically say “Urban Forestry News – May 2019 edition”, though they could include more information to draw peoples’ attention (e.g. “Urban Forestry News – May 2019 edition – Disease Resistant Elms | Boulevard Tree Suggestions”)
- Multiple people noted their fondness for The Insider, a publication periodically published by the DNR’s urban forestry program until 2015. While their fondness may point to a desire for a printed product, perhaps a review of the The Insider could reveal topics or content that could be resurrected. The quiz column about tree damage has been suggested as something to bring back.
- Expand the reach of the newsletter. The Urban Forestry web pages were recently updated, and it is very easy to sign up for the newsletter, but at networking and other meetings, staff should remind attendees to subscribe. DNR Forest Health staff bring newsletter sign-up sheets to their meetings, and that would be an easy process for Urban Forestry staff to replicate.
- Continue to partner with Forest Health and other Forestry programs to cross-promote relevant articles, especially regarding popular topics such as pests, diseases or invasive plants.
- Continue to maintain newsletter analytics to assess readership trends.
- Track and periodically assess the page views by topic, as well as how many articles are written about topics relevant to the newsletter readership. Is there enough content being produced within relevant topics or should this be a greater focus for the newsletter moving forward?
- Target outreach toward underrepresented parts of the state, such as Racine County which appears to have few subscribers relative to its relatively large population.