From Shotgun to Boomerang: Using Feedback
Upon complete this chapter, you should be able to:
- explain the ways in which communication effectiveness and feedback relate to each other,
- identify which type(s) of feedback may be available and how feedback may be gathered for a given communication scenario.
Religion and politics are two subjects that often provoke emotional responses, so, once you are aware of someone’s viewpoint (based on feedback you have received in the past), you might choose to refrain from discussing these topics or change the way you address them. The awareness of bias and preference, combined with the sender’s ability to adapt the message before sending it, increases the probability that a communication will be successfully received. To complete the communication process, you will need to gather and evaluate feedback.
You may receive feedback from peers, colleagues, editors, or supervisors, but feedback from the intended audience can be rare. Imagine that you work in the marketing department of an engineering company and have written an article describing a new kind of water pump that operates with little maintenance and less energy consumption than previous models. Your company has also developed an advertising campaign to introduce this new pump to the market and has added it to their online sales menu. Once your article has been reviewed and posted, it may be accessed online by a reader in another country who is currently researching water pumps that fall within your product range. That reader will see a banner ad displayed across the header of the website, with the name of your company prominently displayed in their native language, even if your article is in English. Ads like this are called contextual ads.
You might never receive direct feedback from that user after they read your article, but indirect feedback is fairly easy to collect. Google can report how many visits your website received as a result of the ad. For example, you can find out how many visits your website received from Germany, the city where the visits originated, and whether the visitor initiated a sales order for the pump. If the sale was left incomplete, you can find out at what stage of the purchase process the user abandoned the basket or order. If the sale was successful, your sales department can provide feedback in the form of overall sales as well as information on specific customers. This, in turn, allows you an opportunity for post-sales communication and additional feedback.
The communication process depends on a series of components that are always present. If you remove one or more, the process disintegrates. You need a source and a receiver, even if those roles alternate and blur. You need a message and a channel. You also need context and environment. Interference is also part of any communication process.
The final step in the communication process is feedback. It contributes to the transactional relationship in communication and serves as part of the information cycle.
Feedback is a receiver’s response to a message and can come in many forms. Let us examine several diverse types of feedback.
You post an article about your company’s new water pump, and when you come back to it an hour later there are 162 comments. As you scroll through the comments, you find that 10 potential customers are interested in learning more, while the rest debate the specifications and technical abilities of the pump. This direct response to your writing is another form of feedback.
Direct feedback is a response that comes from the receiver. Direct feedback can be both verbal and non-verbal, and it may involve signs, symbols, words, or sounds. You may send an email to a customer who inquired about your water pump, offering to send a printed brochure, and have a local sales representative call. In order to do so, you will need the customer’s mailing address, physical location, and phone number. If the customer replies simply with “Thanks!”—no address, no phone number—how do you interpret this direct feedback? Communication is dynamic and complex, and it is not always easy to understand or predict it.
Just as non-verbal gestures do not appear independent of the context in which the communication interaction occurs, and often overlap, recycle, and repeat across the interaction, the ability to identify clear and direct feedback can be a significant challenge. In face-to-face communication, yawns and frequent glances at the clock may serve as a clear signal (direct feedback) for lack of interest, but direct feedback for the writer is less obvious. It is a rare moment when the article you wrote is read in your presence and direct feedback is immediately available. Often, feedback comes to the author long after the article is published.
Indirect feedback is a response that does not come directly from the receiver or source. The receiver may receive the message and may become the source of the response, but they may not communicate the response directly to you, the author. Your ability to track who accesses your website, what they read, and how long their visit lasts can constitute feedback to guide your writing. You may also receive comments, emails, or information from individuals within your organization about what customers have told them. This is another source of indirect feedback. The fact that the information is not communicated directly may limit its reliability, but it does have value.
Check Your Understanding
We usually think of feedback as something that can only come from others, but in the case of internal feedback, we can get it from ourselves. Internal feedback may involve reviewing your document before you send it, but it also may involve evaluation from within your organization.
On the surface, it may appear that internal feedback cannot come from anyone other than the author, but that would be inaccurate. If we go back to the communication process and revisit the definitions of source and receiver, we can clearly see how each role is not defined by just one person or personality but instead within the transactional nature of communication by function. The source creates and the receiver receives. Once the communication interaction is initiated, the roles often alternate, as in the case of an email or text message “conversation” where two people take turns writing.
When you write a document for a target audience—for example, a group of farmers who will use the pumps your company produces to move water from source to crop—they will be the target receiver you have in mind as you write. Until they receive the message, the review process is internal to your organization, and feedback is from individuals and departments other than the intended receiver.
You may have your company’s engineering department confirm the technical specifications of the information you incorporated into the document or have the sales department confirm a previous customer’s address. In each case, you are receiving internal feedback about content you produced, and in some ways, each department is contributing to the message prior to delivery. Internal feedback starts with you. Your review of what you write is critical. You are the first and last line of responsibility for your writing. As the author, it is your responsibility to ensure your content is correct, clear, concise, and ethical.
When you, as an author, consider whether the writing in a document is correct, it is important that you interpret correctness broadly. The writing needs to fit the context and be appropriate for the audience’s expectations. A piece of writing may be technically correct, even polished, and still be incorrect for the audience. Keeping in mind what you know about your audience (e.g., their reading levels and educational background) will help you craft a fit-for-purpose message.
Correctness also involves accuracy. A skilled writer verifies all sources for accuracy. If you do not diligently verify everything, you are opening the door to accusations; for example, false information could be interpreted as a fraud and may have legal implications. Keep notes on where and when you accessed websites, where you found the information you cite or include, and be prepared to back up your statements with a review of your sources.
Writing correctly also includes providing current, up-to-date information. Most business documents emphasize the time-sensitive nature of the information. It does not make sense to rely on sales figures from two years ago when you can use sales figures from last year; neither does citing old articles, outdated materials, and sources that may not apply to the given discussion. That said, outdated information can serve useful purposes but often requires qualification on why it is relevant.
Business writing also needs to be clear; otherwise, it will fail in its purpose to inform or persuade readers. Unclear writing can lead to misunderstandings that consume time and effort to undo. An old saying in military communications is “Whatever can be misunderstood will be misunderstood.” To give yourself valuable internal feedback about the clarity of your document, try to pretend you know nothing more about the subject than your least informed reader does. Can you follow the information provided? Are your points supported? This is why proofreading and testing is so key to the writing process.
Finally, a skilled business writer understands he or she does not stand alone. Ethical consideration of the words you write, what they represent, and their consequences are part of the responsibility of a business writer. The writer offers information to a reading audience, and if their credibility is lost, future interactions are far less likely to occur. Brand management reinforces the associations and a relationship with the product or services that would be negatively compromised should the article and, by association, author and company be found untrue. Advertising may promote features, but false advertising can lead to litigation.
Check Your Understanding
How do you know that your writing has been read and understood? Writing, reading, and action based on the exchange of symbolic information is a reflection of the communication process. Assessment of the feedback from the receiver is part of a writer’s responsibility. Increasingly, web-based documents allow for interaction and enhancement of feedback, but you will still be producing documents that exist as hard copies. Your documents may travel to places you do not expect and cannot predict. Feedback comes in many forms, and in this part of our discussion we focus on assessing interaction and gathering information from it. External feedback involves a response from the receiver. Receivers, in turn, become a source of information themselves. Attention to the channel they use (how they communicate feedback), as well as non-verbal aspects like time (when they send it), can serve you well as feedback mechanisms.
Hard Copy Documents and External Feedback
Your business or organization may communicate in written forms across time zones and languages via digital communication, but some documents are still produced on paper. Offline technologies like a photocopier or printer are still tools you will use as a normal course of business.
Letters are a common way of introducing information to clients and customers, and you may be tasked to produce a document that is printed and distributed via “snail mail.” Legal documents are still largely in hard copy print form. So, too, are documents that address the needs of customers and clients who do not, or prefer not to, access information digitally.
Age is one audience characteristic that you might focus on when considering who may need to receive a letter in hard copy form, but you may be surprised about this. In a 2010 study of Canadian Internet use, web research firm comScore found that “while every other age group’s online engagement levelled off or even declined between the end of 2009 and the end of 2010, the number of older users jumped 12 percent. On the other hand, the number of web users aged 17 or under actually dropped 4 percent during the same period” (Globe and Mail, 2011).
Socioeconomic status is a better characteristic to focus on when sending hard copy documents. Lack of access to a computer and the Internet is a reality for much of the world’s population. It is often stated that half of the world’s population will never make a phone call in their lifetime, and even though the references for the claims are widespread and diverse, the idea that there are people without access to a phone is striking for many Westerners. While cell phones are increasingly allowing poor and rural populations to skip the investment in landline networks and wireless Internet is a leapfrog technology that changes everything, cell phones and computers are still prohibitively expensive and unavailable for many.
Suppose you work for a major bank on the West Coast of Canada. You have been assigned to write a letter offering a refinance option to a select, previously screened audience composed of individuals who share several common characteristics: high-wage earners with exceptional credit scores. How will you get the attention of this audience? If you sent an email, it might get marked as spam. The audience is small and you have a budget for hard copy production of documents that includes a line item for mailing costs. If the potential customer receives the letter from your department delivered by an overnight courier like FedEx, they may be more likely to receive your message.
In 2005, United States–based Wells Fargo Bank did exactly that. They mailed a letter of introduction outlining an opportunity to refinance at no cost to the consumer, targeting a group identified as high profit and low risk. The channels selected—print-based documents on letterhead with a mode of delivery sure to get attention—were designed to prompt a response. The letter introduced the program, highlighted the features, and discussed why the customers were among a group of individuals to whom this offer was being extended (Diaz de Leon, 2005). In the letter, the bank specifically solicited a customer response, a form of feedback, via email and/or phone to establish dialogue. One could collect feedback in terms of number of respondents and in terms of the channel customers used to respond.
Hard copy documents can be a challenge when it comes to feedback, but that does not mean it is impossible to involve them in the feedback process. It is important to remember that even up until the late 1990s, most business documents were print-based. From sales reports to product development reports, they were printed, copied, bound, and distributed, all at considerable cost.
If one purpose of your letter is to persuade the client or customer to reply by email or phone, one way to assess feedback is the response rate, or the number of replies in relation to the number of letters sent. If your report on a new product is prepared for internal use and is targeted to a specific division within your company, their questions in relation to the document may serve as feedback. If you send a memo that produces more questions than the one it was intended to address, the negative feedback may highlight the need for revision. In each case, hard copy documents are often assessed through verbal and written feedback.
External Feedback in a Virtual Environment
When the Internet first came into popular use, a challenge for companies was to accurately assess their audience. When you produce content for a specific audience with a specific purpose, the reception you get to your message determines its value. Imagine that you produced a pilot television program with all the best characters, excellent dialogue, and big-name stars, only to see the pilot flop. If you had all the right elements in a program, how could it fail? It may have failed to attract an audience. Television often uses ratings (measurements of the estimated number of viewers) to measure success. Programs that get past a pilot or past a first season do so because they have good ratings and are ranked above other competing programs. All programs compete with one another within a time slot or across a genre. Those that achieve high rankings—those that receive the largest number of viewers—can command higher budgets and receive more advertising dollars. Programs that reach few people are often cancelled and replaced.
Writers experience a process of competition, ratings, feedback, and renewal within the world of online publishing. Business writers want their content to be read. Just as companies developed ways to measure the number of viewers of a given television program, which led to rankings that influenced which programs survived and prospered and which were cancelled, the Internet has a system of keeping track of what gets read and by whom.
Page views are a count of how many times a website is viewed. Each time a user or reader views the page counts as one page view. Google and other companies commonly track the number of unique visits a reader makes to a website, using cookies, (small, time-encoded files) to identify specific users.
Rankings of website on search engines like Google are established through a number of metrics. One of the most important metrics is the number of other websites that link to yours. By linking to your page or article, another website is giving it a vote of confidence. This, in turn, results in higher rankings for your page. More people will see it and read it as a result. In time, your page may become an authority because many other pages link to it.
As a business writer you will naturally want to incorporate authoritative sources and relevant content, but you will also want to attract and engage your audience, positioning your document as an authority. Feedback in the form of links may be one way to assess your online document.
Let’s say you have reviewed the comments that users have left on your blog post. This, in some ways, serves the same purpose as letters to the editor in traditional media. In newspapers, magazines, and other offline forms of print media, an edition is produced with a collection of content and then delivered to an audience. The audience includes members of a subscriber-based group with common interests, as well as those who read a magazine casually while waiting in the doctor’s office. If an article generated interest, enjoyment, or outrage (or demanded correction), people wrote letters in response. Selected responses would be published in the next edition. There is a time delay associated with this system that reflects the preparation, production, and distribution cycle of the medium.
With the introduction of online media, however, the speed of this feedback loop has greatly increased. Public relations announcements, product reviews, and performance data of your organization are often made available via social media. If you see a factual error in an internally released article, within minutes you may be able to respond in an email to correct the data. In the same way, if the document is released externally, feedback from outside your organization will be quick. Audience members may debate your description of the water pump or openly question its effectiveness in relation to its specifications; they may even post positive comments. Customer comments, such as letters to the editor, can be a valuable source of feedback.
Customer reviews and similar forms of user-generated content are increasingly common across the Internet. People often choose written communication as the preferred format; from tweets, blog posts, and commentary pages to threaded, theme-based forums, person-to-person exchange is increasingly common. Still, as a business writer, you will note that even with the explosion of opinion content, the tendency for online writers to cite a website promotes interaction.
Due to the speed at which we can communicate online, customers often expect that they can send a tweet, Facebook message, or email to your company and get a response right away. This has led to an entirely new set of communications roles in the workforce, as there is now a need for employees to monitor and post to company social streams in real time, reacting to external comments and complaints as they happen.
Your goal as a business writer is to meet the audience and employer’s expectations in a clear and concise way. Trying to facilitate endless discussions may generate feedback but may not translate into success. Facebook serves as a reminder that you want to provide solid content and attend to the feedback. People who use Google already have something in mind when they perform a search, and if your content provides what readers are looking for, you may see your page views and effectiveness increase.
Interviews provide an author with the opportunity to ask questions of, and receive responses from, audience members. Since interviews take considerable time and cannot easily be scaled up to address large numbers of readers, they are most often conducted with a small, limited audience. An interview involves an interviewer, an interviewee, and a series of questions. It can be an employment interview or an informational interview in preparation of document production, but in this case we are looking for feedback. As a business writer, you may choose to schedule time with a supervisor to ask a couple of questions about how you could improve the document you produced. You may also schedule time with the client or potential customer and try to learn more. You may interact across a wide range of channels, from face-to-face to an email exchange, and learn more about how your document was received.
At some point, you may have answered your phone to find a stranger on the other end asking you to take part in a survey for a polling organization. You may have also received a consumer survey in the mail, with a paper form to fill out and return in a postage-paid envelope. Online surveys are also becoming popular. This type of reader feedback can be valuable, particularly if some of the questions are open ended. Closed questions require a simple yes or no to respond, making them easier to tabulate as “votes,” but open-ended questions give respondents complete freedom to write their thoughts. As such, they promote the expression of new and creative ideas and can lead to valuable insights. Surveys can take place in person, for example, in an interview format, which is the format used when taking a census. For example, Statistics Canada employs people to go door to door and follow up with those households that do not return census questionnaires. Your organization may lack comparable resources and may choose to mail out surveys on paper with postage-paid response envelopes or may reduce the cost and increase speed by asking respondents to complete the survey online.
Focus groups involve a representative sample of individuals, brought together to represent a larger group or audience. If you know the characteristics of your target audience, you would look for participants who can represent more than one of those characteristics. The interaction involves a question-and-answer format. If your company is looking to launch a new product, you may introduce that product to this select audience to see how they react. What they say and express may help you in writing your promotional materials. In terms of feedback, you may assemble a group of individuals who use your product or service, and then ask them a series of questions in a group setting. The responses may have bearing on the way you write about your product.
Normally, we think of focus groups in a physical setting, but, again, modern technology has allowed for innovative adaptations. Forums, webinars, and other virtual gatherings allow groups to come together across time and distance to discuss specific topics. A web camera, a microphone, and an Internet connection are all it takes. Focus groups will increasingly gather via computer-mediated technologies in the future as the costs of bringing people together for a traditional meeting increase.
To find out if your communication has been received and understood, you will need to collect feedback from your audience. This feedback will give you an opportunity to optimize your messages in the future, change your behaviour or methods, and clarify anything that your audience has misunderstood.
Feedback can come directly from your audience or indirectly via a third party. It may come from internal or external sources. Depending on the channel you are using, feedback might take the form of non-verbal cues, such as your receiver’s expressions and body language; verbal cues, like word choice and tone; or written cues, like letters and memos. Digital channels have made it possible for audiences to rapidly respond via user-generated feedback on websites, blogs, and social media.
Companies can elicit feedback through a number of channels, including interviews, surveys, and focus groups.
No matter what channel you have chosen to communicate with, make sure to close the feedback loop with your audience to gain insight on how to become a better communicator.
Key Takeaways and Check In
References and Attribution
Akkad, O. E. (2011). Canadians’ Internet usage nearly double the worldwide average. The Globe and Mail. Retreived from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/canadians-internet-usage-nearly-double-the-worldwide-average/article1934508/
Diaz de Leon, M. (2005, September 1). Personal communication. In Anonymous. (n.d.). Communication for Business Success. Retrieved from http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/communication-for-business-success-canadian-edition/s12-01-diverse-forms-of-feedback.html
Attribution Statement (Feedback)
This chapter is a remix containing content from a variety of sources published under a variety of open licenses, including the following:
- Original content contributed by the Olds College OER Development Team, of Olds College to Professional Communications Open Curriculum under a CC-BY 4.0 license
- Content created by Anonymous for Diverse Forms of Feedback, in Communication for Business Success (Canadian Edition), shared previously at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/communication-for-business-success-canadian-edition/s12-01-diverse-forms-of-feedback.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license
Check Your Understandings
- Original assessment items contributed by the Olds College OER Development Team, of Olds College to Professional Communications Open Curriculum under a CC-BY 4.0 license
- Assessment items created by The Saylor Foundation for a Saylor.org course BUS210: Corporate Communication, shared previously at https://www.oercommons.org/courses/business-administration-corporate-communication-unit-11-quiz under a CC BY 3.0 US license