marketing survey, focus groups, marketing research

What Makes a Survey Worthwhile?


We’re all familiar with the ubiquitous greeting, “How are you?” Instinctively, we understand the only socially acceptable answer is “I’m fine.” If someone is truly interested, he or she might place a hand on our shoulder, look into our eyes with a concerned expression, and say, “Seriously, how are you?” That’s how you should approach any survey conducted for marketing purposes; you must sincerely care about getting a truthful answer.

Of course, there’s one really big difference in our analogy: A survey for your business may seem to inquire how your customers feel, but what you’re asking is, “How am I?” You may not care how Uncle Ed adjusts to his low-sodium diet, but you have a huge interest in your own company.

Honesty in survey responses is everything. Only accurate answers are going to provide the intelligence you need for identifying your true value proposition and managing your brand, making decisions regarding your product or service offerings, correcting operational deficiencies, or taking advantage of developing opportunities.

Getting the Most from a Marketing Survey

Caring about what your customers (or prospective customers) think about your business is the starting point for creating a worthwhile survey. Here are a few rules for survey construction that will put you on a path to gaining actionable information.

Use perfect grammar. We have grammar rules for a reason—they help us better understand the messages carried by language. Consider the difference made by something as seemingly innocuous as comma placement. Consider: “Let’s eat, kids,” vs. “Let’s eat kids.”

Screen your survey subjects. Is the respondent a customer or someone who could easily become a customer? Demographics-related questions will help answer these questions. You might also want to ask questions to help weed out anyone with an incentive to provide faulty information, such as someone working for a competitor.

Be clear what you are asking about. Ambiguity is your enemy. Generally speaking, short, direct questions are best—provided there’s a relatively limited list of logically possible answers. Longer questions can be okay, provided they help narrow the respondent’s focus by setting parameters of consideration.

Group questions for logical progression. How questions are arranged will aid your subjects’ focus on various areas of interest within a survey. For longer surveys, the distinctive grouping will help respondents feel they are making progress in completing the questionnaire.

Provide applicable answer options. Many questionnaires provide survey subjects with a range of answer options—usually four or five. This will work fine if you’re confident the vast majority of respondents will choose some answer other than “I don’t know” or “N/A.” A better approach may be to ask subjects to pick a point on a sliding scale to indicate their level of agreement, like or dislike, the likelihood of taking some kind of action … etc., in response to the question.

Keep it brief. Any survey that takes longer than 5 – 10 minutes for the average person to complete is probably going to test respondent patience. You don’t want people to give up—or worse—hurriedly answer questions without regard to accuracy. If the survey absolutely has to be longer than 10 minutes, give the subject a fair warning before they begin.

Once you have completed surveys, the real fun begins as you tabulate results. (Some people actually do enjoy statistical analysis … others, not so much.) Here are three important steps:

  • Group your respondents by their demographic profiles to help spot trends.
  • Record every question result to establish a baseline against which to measure future surveys.
  • Review poll results with an eye toward improving your next survey. (For instance, too many “N/A” or “no opinion” answers indicate a problem.)
  • Follow through and follow up. There’s really no point of doing a survey unless you act on the results. Additionally, you want to let your respondents know that you value their input, with some small token of appreciation if possible, but a thank you email at a minimum.

The ‘science’ of surveys is relatively straightforward. The ‘art’ is in the interpretation. Initial thoughts of “What does this mean?” will often be followed by “But what does this really mean?” Talk the results over with trusted staff members, friendly peers in your industry, insightful friends and family members, or even some of your best, longest-term customers. An openness to other assessments will keep you from hearing just what you want to hear or from making mountains out of molehills.

Finally, resist the urge to be defensive in your reaction to negative survey results. Marketing research is designed to help improve your business. (You can’t improve what’s already perfect … and no organization is perfect.) Think of criticism as being like a friend who lets you know you have spinach stuck on a front tooth.  Conversely, if your feedback is glowingly positive, don’t simply set back on your laurels in smug satisfaction. Build on success by getting busy using the things you do well as a springboard for new outreach and business growth.

P.S. For more information about surveys, you might check out these online articles:

How to Create a Market Survey

Constructing a Questionnaire

Analysis and Handling Survey Data