Online surveys are one of the most effective and affordable internet marketing tactics around. They're an easy way for entrepreneurs to obtain the feedback they need to help them make crucial business decisions. Through online surveys, small businesses can better understand their customers' needs, hone products and services accordingly, build customer loyalty, expand their customer base and better fulfill their potential.

But obtaining the quality and quantity of feedback you want means you need to ask the right questions. Here are 10 tips that will help you create effective surveys:

1. Clearly define the purpose of your survey. Effective surveys have focused objectives that are easily understood. For a survey to be successful, you need to spend time upfront to identify, in writing, the following objectives:

  • What is the goal of this survey?
  • What do you hope to accomplish with this survey?
  • How will you use the data you are collecting?
  • What decisions do you hope to be able to provide input to from the responses to this survey?

By answering these questions now, you'll be able to more easily identify what data you need to collect later in order to make these decisions.

It sounds obvious, but a few minutes of planning upfront could mean the difference between receiving quality responses-responses that are useful as inputs to decisions-and uninterpretable data.

Consider the case of the software firm that wanted to find out what new functionality was most important to its customers. Their survey asked "How can we improve our product?" The resulting answers were anything from "Make it easier" to "Add an update button on the recruiting page." While interesting information, the data wasn't really helpful for the product manager who wanted to take an itemized list to the development team, using customer input to prioritize his list.

Spending time identifying the survey's objectives might have helped the survey creators determine if 1) they were trying to understand their customers' perception of their software-that is, hard to use, time consuming, unreliable-in order to identify areas of improvement or 2) if they were trying to understand the value of specific enhancements by asking respondents to rank the importance of adding new functionality X, Y or Z.

Fuzzy goals tend to lead to fuzzy results, and the last thing you want to end up with is a set of results that provide no real decision-enhancing value. Upfront planning helps ensure that the surveys ask the right questions to meet your objectives and therefore that the data you collect will be useful.

2. Keep the survey short and focused. Keeping it short and focused helps with both the quality and quantity of the responses you'll get. So it's generally better to focus on a single objective than try to create a master survey that covers multiple objectives.

Shorter surveys generally have high response rates and lower abandonment among survey takers. It's human nature to want things to be quick and easy-once a survey taker loses interest, they simply abandon the survey, leaving you with the task of determining how to interpret the partial data (or whether to use it at all).

Make sure each of your questions is focused on helping to meet your stated objective. Don't toss in 'nice to have' questions that don't directly provide answers that will help you reach your goals.

3. Keep the questions simple. When crafting your questions, make sure you get to the point and avoid the use of jargon. If you're asking something like this: "When was the last time you used our RGS?" you're probably going to get a lot of unanswered questions. Don't assume your survey takers are as comfortable with your acronyms as you are.

Try to make your questions as specific and direct as possible. Compare: What has your experience been working with our HR team? To: How satisfied are you with the response time of our HR team? The second is much more likely to garner useful responses.

4. Used closed-ended questions whenever possible. Closed-ended questions make it easier to analyze results and can take the form of yes/no, multiple choice or a rating scale. Open-ended questions are great supplemental questions and may provide useful qualitative information and insights. However, for collating and analysis purposes, close-ended questions are best. One warning: Make sure your closed-ended questions don't force survey takers into choosing a "less bad" answer.

5. Keep rating scale questions consistent. Questions that offer rating scales-for example, rating something on a scale of 1 to 5-are a great way to measure and compare sets of variables. But if you elect to use rating scales, you need to keep them consistent throughout your survey: Use the same number of points on the scale for each question, and make sure the meanings of high and low remain the same. Switching your rating scales around throughout the survey will only confuse survey takers, leading to untrustworthy responses.

6. Make sure your survey flows in a logical order. Begin with a brief introduction-don't reveal the survey objective. Next, start with the broader-based questions, later moving to those that are narrower in scope. It's usually better to collect demographic data and ask any particularly sensitive questions at the end (unless you're using this information to screen out survey participants). If you're requesting contact information, put those questions last.

7. Pre-test your survey. Before launching your survey, be sure to pre-test it with a few members of your target audience to help you uncover glitches and unexpected question interpretations. Also, to make sure it's not too long, time a few of your test subjects as they take the survey. Ideally the survey should take no more than 5 minutes to complete. Six to 10 minutes is acceptable, but you'll probably see significant abandonment rates occurring after 11 minutes.

8. Schedule your survey by taking the calendar into account. When you're planning your e-mail blast date#151;the e-mail that asks people to visit your site to take the survey-keep in mind that Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are the best days to do it-you'll generate more responses than if you send it out on one of the other four days. You want to catch people's attention, and you won't do that on a Friday, when your survey respondents are most likely gearing up for the weekend, Saturday or Sunday, when the last thing on people's minds is a customer survey, or a Monday, when most people are wading through a loaded in-box.

9. Offer an incentive for responding. Depending on the type of survey you're conducting and your survey audience, offering an incentive can be very effective in improving your response rates. People like the idea of getting something in return for their time-incentives typically boost response rates by an average of 50 percent.

If you do decide to offer an incentive, be sure to keep it appropriate in scope. Unnecessarily large incentives can lead to undesirable behavior, such as people lying about their age or income so as not to be screened out from taking the survey.

10. Consider using reminders. While not appropriate for all surveys, sending out reminders to those who haven't yet responded can often provide a significant boost to your response rates.


Dana Meade and Paula Rivers are the co-vice presidents and general managers of Zoomerang, manufacturer of the world's most popular online survey software. For more information on Zoomerang, log on to www.zoomerang.com.