filed under Anecdotes and Stories, Assessment, Marketing, Tips and Tools.

No less than three online surveys popped into my inbox last week just as I put finishing touches on a survey for a client.  Curious about the coincidence, I opened them.

The first was from a well-established museum. The second, from the national bank with which I’ve had a love/hate relationship for many years.  The third came from a social media marketing company to whose newsletter I’d just subscribed.  It was a nicely diverse group of industries.

Learning from others’ mistakes

Survey #1. Despite good intentions, inconsistent grammar, tense and place made several questions on the museum survey all but impossible to answer.  A question about household income had response gaps that someone (fundraisers?) would have to fill in. Then there was the question about whether the store carried items I’d like to buy.  The response options were “yes”, “no”, and “if NO, what would you like to purchase?”  but no text box was provided to answer that question.  Oops.

Survey #2. The bank, perhaps knowing it would not have the same customer relationships as a beloved museum, began with an incentive.  They promised a reward for “those qualified to take the survey who complete it.”  What they meant by “qualified” was not defined.  The reward was a $2 donation to “a charity”, also unspecified.  Really?

The bank’s survey was designed by people who speak in paragraphs, not bullet points.  They asked about spending, borrowing and buying; about attitudes and behaviors toward anything money.  Question after question provided large matrices of wordy response options.  The psychologists and professional marketers were going to have fun if they got enough completed response sets, but would this result in anything other than the phone bank teller trying to sell me more products?  After more than 15 minutes, I decided the charity would have to miss out on me.  I quit.

Survey #3. I had some work deadlines I had to meet.  I got distracted.  It was six days until I could get back to the third survey.  In those six days, I’d received six new email newsletters from the social media company, plus the two or three I’d received before the survey.  They all looked the same. There wasn’t one that said “survey” in the subject line.  Sorry, social media folks.  I’m on screen overload.  You lost me.

The abundance of available online survey tools, many of them free, make it easy to go wild.  For data collection to be a good use of your time and resources, however, it’s important to know and to use good survey practices.  Here are a few to get you started.

Survey checklist

  1. Define your purpose:  What do you want to know and why do you want to know it?  Survey technology is based in science. Think about your “hypothesis” and whether a survey is the best way to test it.
  2. Define your strategy:  How do you intend to use the data you collect?  How will you change the way you do business, based on the feedback you receive? Don’t collect data without a clear plan for what you’re going to do with it.
  3. Learn basics of survey design before you start.  Online survey companies put some good white papers and other free resources out on their websites.  Start there. Take the time up front to learn and you will avoid losing resources or good will in the end.
  4. Write a brief intro.  Tell respondents what you’re doing and why.  Engage their loyalty, interest and desire to contribute, and let them know what to expect – including how long they can expect to spend answering your questions.
  5. Be succinct.  Again, use those fundamentals of survey design to write clear, crisp survey questions that will give you actionable information about what you need to know most.
  6. Test before you launch.  Ask a diverse group of people to take your survey and give you feedback before you finalize and do the real deal.
  7. Communicate your results.  If you cannot take action on results and communicate the action you take, it may not be your right time to do a survey.  Getting stakeholder input to guide business decisions is important but survey burn-out is a real risk.  It’s much easier to prevent than to cure.
  8. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  There’s no savings in doing something for free if it costs you credibility or customer commitment.  An outside perspective may save in the long run.

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