Let's not sugar-coat it: It's looking pretty darn ugly out there. I'm no economist, so I'm not about to predict the markets or the stability of the economy, but I am an internet marketer, and what I can say--with confidence--is that a downturn in the economy does not have to be a major roadblock for your internet business.

One key to surviving--even thriving--during this period of uncertainty is to know your customers.

It's more critical than ever for you to understand exactly who they are--their interests, goals, priorities and desires. This will allow you to create laser-focused marketing copy that speaks directly to them and solves their specific problems. You'll also be able to offer products that you know will make a difference in their lives. They'll reward you with continued customer loyalty and ongoing sales.

The easiest and fastest way to look inside their heads is with a survey. You can create an effective and informative survey that will help you connect with your customers and continue to profit during the current financial turmoil in five steps.

Step #1: Plan Your Survey
As with everything else you do with your business, you'll have the greatest success with your survey if you plan. Decide on your goals for the survey. Are you trying to learn more about specific products you offer? Looking for ways to give everyone a more positive customer care experience? Trying to gather demographic information so you can segment your list better and send out tailored offers?

Be clear about what you're hoping to accomplish with the survey, and you'll be in great shape when it's time to create it.

Step #2: Choose Your Weapon
One thing I like about surveys is that they're simple for most business owners to administer. That's because there are lots of free web-based services that will host your survey. Just design the survey using their simple point-and-click interface, enter the text for your questions, and then e-mail a link to your customers and subscribers. When your customers show up, the automated survey is online and ready to take. Many of these free services also offer a reasonable number of reporting features, making it easy to interpret your results.

Most of these services also offer paid upgrades, which allows you to create more complex surveys and get more sophisticated reports, but for a typical small survey, the freebies work fine. Here are a couple that I've used and like:

Step #3: Design and Write Your Survey
Here are a few tips to help you design a better survey:

  • Start off easy: To ease your customers into the survey, start off with some simple questions they can answer without a lot of thought. Basic demographic information is a good example (age, location, etc.).

    But save a few easy questions for the rest of the survey. That way, it won't get increasingly difficult throughout, which can cause some people to bail before they complete it.
  • Avoid asking too many questions: Ten minutes is about the maximum time people will spend on a survey. Let them know up front how much time they'll need.
  • Give your survey an introduction and ending: Include a brief introduction to the survey that clearly explains what people are required to do. End the survey with a thank-you page to let people know you appreciate their time.
  • Respect people's privacy: If you want to collect personal information like income or occupation, reassure your customers that their answers are all confidential.
  • Avoid leading questions: Be sure that your questions don't sway your customers toward a particular answer, especially giving an answer that's not true.

    For example, don't say, "How quickly did we resolve your problem?" This assumes the problem was resolved. The question you should ask is, "Was your problem resolved?"
  • Avoid questions that require people to rate more than one thing at a time: For instance, don't say, "How fast and accurate did you find our customer service representative?" While the service may have been fast, it may not have been accurate (or vice versa).
  • Focus on asking closed-ended questions: In a survey, a closed-ended question is one that can be answered with a simple yes, no, or other specific piece of information, or a selection from multiple choices. This makes the survey faster and easier for your customers, and the results more simple for you to manage.
  • Be consistent with your questions: If you ask your customers to rate certain things on a numbered scale, make sure to use the same scale each time. If they need to rate something on a scale of 1 to 5 in one question, avoid using a scale of 1 to 10 elsewhere.
  • Carefully review and test the survey: Make sure it has a logical flow and that it all makes sense, then ask a few people (customers, if possible, or co-workers, friends, or family) to take the survey ahead of time, and watch them while they do it. Once they're done, ask about the experience. Was there anything they didn't understand? Were they confused at any point? Make sure the survey is easy to understand and follow before you make it available.

Step #4: Administer the Survey
The easiest way to do this is to e-mail your customers and ask them for a few minutes of their time. Be sure you tell them what's in it for them if they take the survey.

If your goal is to improve a certain product, tell them that by taking the survey they'll actually be helping you to help them because you'll use their comments to fine-tune the assistance you can offer them.

Don't be shy about offering your customers a "bribe" for taking the survey. Consider sending everyone who responds a gift, like a free e-book, a coupon for discounted products or entry in a drawing.

Finally, make sure you build some urgency into the e-mail. If you don't ask people to take the time right away to answer the survey, they'll often put it aside for later but never return to complete it.

Step #5: Interpret Your Results
As you review the results of your survey, remember that, more than anything, you're looking for trends. Did the majority of respondents answer specific questions the same way? Are they often expressing the same frustrations?

At the same time, look for any surprising answers. Your survey is likely going to tell you things about your audience that you had no idea were true.

By finding out exactly who your audience is, what they like and dislike, and what their goals and experiences are, you'll be able to tailor your sales copy, your e-mail marketing efforts, your website and even your products, to suit them.

The results should be improved customer loyalty and ongoing success with your business, even during these turbulent economic times.

Derek Gehl is Entrepreneur.com's e-business columnist and the CEO of the Internet Marketing Center. He is an internationally renowned Internet marketing expert whose techniques and strategies for building a successful online business have been implemented by hundreds of thousands of businesses worldwide. His comprehensive internet marketing guide, The Insider Secrets to Marketing Your Business on the Internet has been an online bestseller for 10 years.