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Boosting Your Online Survey Responses

The following 10 tips can help you improve the quality and quantity of the responses you get from your customer surveys.

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Online surveys are one of the most effective and affordableinternet marketing tactics around. They're an easy way forentrepreneurs to obtain the feedback they need to help them makecrucial business decisions. Through online surveys, smallbusinesses can better understand their customers' needs, honeproducts and services accordingly, build customer loyalty, expandtheir customer base and better fulfill their potential.

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

1. Clearly define the purpose of your survey. Effectivesurveys have focused objectives that are easily understood. For asurvey to be successful, you need to spend time upfront toidentify, 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 fromthe responses to this survey?

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

It sounds obvious, but a few minutes of planning upfront couldmean the difference between receiving quality responses-responsesthat are useful as inputs to decisions-and uninterpretabledata.

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

Spending time identifying the survey's objectives might havehelped the survey creators determine if 1) they were trying tounderstand their customers' perception of their software-thatis, hard to use, time consuming, unreliable-in order to identifyareas of improvement or 2) if they were trying to understand thevalue of specific enhancements by asking respondents to rank theimportance of adding new functionality X, Y or Z.

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

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

Shorter surveys generally have high response rates and lowerabandonment among survey takers. It's human nature to wantthings to be quick and easy-once a survey taker loses interest,they simply abandon the survey, leaving you with the task ofdetermining how to interpret the partial data (or whether to use itat all).

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

3. Keep the questions simple. When crafting yourquestions, make sure you get to the point and avoid the use ofjargon. If you're asking something like this: "When wasthe last time you used our RGS?" you're probably going toget a lot of unanswered questions. Don't assume your surveytakers 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 cantake the form of yes/no, multiple choice or a rating scale.Open-ended questions are great supplemental questions and mayprovide useful qualitative information and insights. However, forcollating and analysis purposes, close-ended questions are best.One warning: Make sure your closed-ended questions don't forcesurvey takers into choosing a "less bad" answer.

5. Keep rating scale questions consistent. Questions thatoffer rating scales-for example, rating something on a scale of 1to 5-are a great way to measure and compare sets of variables. Butif you elect to use rating scales, you need to keep them consistentthroughout your survey: Use the same number of points on the scalefor each question, and make sure the meanings of high and lowremain the same. Switching your rating scales around throughout thesurvey will only confuse survey takers, leading to untrustworthyresponses.

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

7. Pre-test your survey. Before launching your survey, besure to pre-test it with a few members of your target audience tohelp you uncover glitches and unexpected question interpretations.Also, to make sure it's not too long, time a few of your testsubjects as they take the survey. Ideally the survey should take nomore than 5 minutes to complete. Six to 10 minutes is acceptable,but you'll probably see significant abandonment rates occurringafter 11 minutes.

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

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

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

10. Consider using reminders. While not appropriate forall surveys, sending out reminders to those who haven't yetresponded can often provide a significant boost to your responserates.

Dana Meade and Paula Rivers are the co-vice presidents andgeneral managers of Zoomerang, manufacturer of the world's mostpopular online survey software. For more information on Zoomerang,log on to

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