Will Your Readers Love Your Story? Find Out With A “Performance Pretest.”

When I was an editor at an alumni magazine, one of the most frustrating experiences I dealt with was never knowing whether or not the brilliant story idea I had was going to resonate with readers.

Would a story generate lots of congratulations, letters, and other feedback? Or would it barely create a ripple?

a gif of someone pouring a mailbag of letters onto a tableThe reader mailbag.

You’ve probably been here before.

A clever story idea isn’t enough.

Sometimes, you have a relatively simple idea that gets an incredible response.

Here’s one example: Campus myths. A feature story on all those too-good-to-be-true stories that have circulated for decades is almost always a guaranteed winner. People really want to know if that famous alum actually walked the horse up to the top floor of the residence hall, if a dorm was really designed to be riot-proof, and if those steam tunnels actually have a more sinister purpose.

Other times, you can spend hours crafting a story idea and packaging, only to see it completely flop.

Years ago, I did a story in which I tried to re-create a single class session from popular professors at a college. It was a hugely time consuming process *and* it nobody cared.


While it’s true that there’s no 100 percent surefire way to predict a hit or a flop, there is a method that can help. And I’m excited to share it below.

A simple test can illuminate promising ideas.

Before committing serious time and resources to a story for your print publication, you can do a simple test to find out how people are most likely to react — and even gather information to make a potential story even better.

I call it the “performance pretest.” It’s a strategic question posted on Facebook or other social platform that’s specifically designed to help you gauge what your audience wants. I’ve shared a couple of approaches below — plus the exact template I’ve used successfully to get the most helpful responses from alumni.

1. Ask a specific question on social media

Ask a related question on Facebook — or whatever social platform tends to get the most engagement from your users.

For example:

  • Considering a story on campus concerts? Ask your audience which ones they remember as students and why they resonated.

  • Working on a project about retiring professors? Ask your audience to share their stories about the folks on your list.

  • Thinking about an ongoing series about campus buildings? Set up a poll to see which one you should use to launch the series.

  • Want to do a piece on some of the school’s most iconic objects? Ask your audience to weigh in.

Their responses — or lack thereof — can help guide your work moving forward. They can also be a smart way to bring potential sources to the surface.

When I considered pitching a story on my own alma mater’s best pranks, I posted a question on Facebook and got dozens of responses. It was clear that this topic would be a winner. (More on that below.)

I noted which comments got the most likes to help me decide which pranks I would definitely need to include. A few folks even shared their own pranks that they were still proud to have executed successfully — or suggested folks they knew would have some good information.

I’ve also created posts that sank like a stone. I heard crickets when I asked for campus traditions worth writing about. That’s useful, too! Better to know it before I took up pages of valuable magazine real estate.

2. Go on a fishing expedition.

Sometimes, you don’t have a specific topic in mind and simply throwing out a general request can work, too.

I recently saw someone post a note about starting up a podcast linked to their alma mater. They wanted to know if alumni had any suggested topics. Ideas came rolling in — favorite college haunts that no longer existed, campus traditions, the history of beloved programs, campus pets.

Some were amazing ideas, some were interesting but impractical, some were off the wall. But the responses (and the responses to the responses!) were illuminating.

Follow this template for your performance pretest.

If you’re going to do a performance pretest, take an extra few minutes to do it right. Here’s one pretest I did, with a few notes on the structure I chose:

1. Give it a headline.

Posts like these tend to be a bit longer than most, so a descriptive headline can help. That way, people don’t skip a post they might otherwise like to comment on.

2. Use specific examples to show what you’re seeking.

Sometimes readers will just need a little bit of a jump start to put themselves in the right mental space to help you out. If you’re interested in learning more about campus concerts, suggest one example from a decade ago, two decades ago, and three decades ago. This approach will help people from a range of eras jog their memories so they can contribute.

3. Be clear about ways people can respond to your request.

Sometimes, people want to respond publicly! But every time I’ve offered the chance to contact me privately, people have done it.

4. Be ready with a starter comment.

In this case, enthusiastic responses rolled in right away, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes people want to contribute, but they don’t want to be the one who launches the conversation. If people don’t weigh in right away, grab a colleague or a friendly alum and ask them to weigh in on the post — you can even pre-write a response yourself! Get the ball rolling and people will be more likely to respond when they know they won’t be alone.

Share your own performance pretest stories.

What kind of performance pretests have you done to see if a story is worth pursuing? What have you learned? Let me know!

P.S. I love seeing your magazines, and I often share some of the best stories in this newsletter. Put Capstone on your mailing list so I can share your best work.

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