Is there a reason why online surveys have exploded into the most popular market research methodology over the past decade? Yes, actually there are a few.
One reason is because they are cost effective when compared to phone surveys (caller time) and mail surveys (printing, postage, and data entry). On top of that, they are also quick. Fieldwork can be completed in as little as 24 hours compared to weeks or months for a phone or mail survey.
Several other advancements have been made with online surveys in recent years to narrow the gap on quality of data (which is the strongest argument for phone research). Phone research offers a live interviewer in many cases which creates active 2-way communication. With online surveys, you are at the mercy of how much or how little a person is willing to answer or type.
However, features like engaging scales, dynamic text, and piping has improved online surveys and their ability to actively listen to respondent feedback and cater the survey appropriately. These capabilities increase engagement and improve the user experience (UX) of the survey taker. This all helps improve data quality for the market research firm and the client.
How a great online survey experience is described by respondents.
Don't believe us? Use these 44 tips to get you there.
But you get it.
You're here for survey tips and that's okay because we've got those for you too.
Without further ado here are 44 quick tips for online surveys.
[Reader Note: Now would be a good time to refill your coffee or wine glass, depending on the time of day. Unless the time of day does not drive your decision to choose a beverage of choice. In that case, fill your mug or glass with whatever you'd like before we get started.]
Tip 1: Send an introductory email or letter.
Often forgotten, but it should never be undervalued. The introductory email or letter from the sponsoring research company or client offers several key benefits.
First, if you are working with a market research firm, it introduces this company as the third-party to protect confidentiality.
Second, it explains the importance of the survey and what will be done with the results.
Other benefits of this include it provides the customers an ETA on the survey invite as well as gives you a sneak preview at potential open rates for your email invitation.
Benefit after benefit after benefit. We highly recommend this.
Here are the 4 benefits of a pre-awareness email or letter in more detail.
Tip 2: Draft the survey in a Word document first.
You think online survey, so many immediately jump to scripting the survey online. This is somewhat of a disadvantage because the survey software likely won't print your masterpiece as clean and crisp as a Word document.
Word documents are more easily shared and can be edited and commented on by all. Plus you'll actually save time by finalizing a Word document first and then cutting and pasting questions and answers into your survey software.
Making changes on a Word document is always easier. Hash those additions, subtractions, and changes out on that before you begin swapping questions in and out which impact programming.
You'll thank yourself for this.
Tip 3: Test drive it internally.
You have everything finalized in your survey and you've run through several of your own tests. Think you're ready for prime time? Think again.
Send the survey link out to at least 3 or 4 colleagues in your company to test it out as a real respondent. More often than not they will raise good points about how a question is worded or specific answer choices.
They also might find a typo or two.
You will likely get so engulfed in the survey, a fresh set of eyes and perspective from some trusted friends (or enemies) will help.
Now that I think about it, enemies might be more willing to call out your shortcomings. Not a bad idea at all.
Tip 4: Test drive it on the real roads.
Okay, now you have every ready to go after your internal tests. Now you're ready for prime time. Think again. Again.
Now you'll want to test drive this survey as a soft-launch. Pick 1% of your sample, 100 customers, or a small spend amount ($100) to collect some initial survey completes.
Review these survey completes closely to ensure everything is working properly. Once you've passed this road test,slam on the gas. Pedal to the metal. You're ready for a full launch. Now, you're ready for prime time. Peel those tires.
Test, test, test before a full launch. Safety first.
Tip 5: Use skip logic and branching.
This is what separates the amateurs from the professional survey writers. Skip logic and branching gives survey designers the ability to skip questions that are not applicable to survey takers.
For example, if Question 1 asks the respondent if they've been to your store in the past 6 months and they state "no", should they really be asked Question 2 about what they purchased at the store in the past 6 months? Clearly not.
Skip logic and branching can address this. Your survey respondents expect this or the frustration will boil over. The boiling point equals a drop out and exit to ESPN.com or Pinterest.
Your online survey must listen to your respondents by virtue of prior answers. If not, you'll pay the consequences.
Tip 6: Watch the initial completed surveys closely.
The first 25 to 50 completes are likely the most telling. This will help you understand how the data is beginning to map out and what you'll be on pace for.
Perhaps only 1:4 of your completes are females and you need a 50-50 split. Maybe you need to adjust your quotas or spend levels to account for this.
After you receive the first 50 to 100 completes the percentages for each category won't change by more than 5% to 10% so keep that in mind based on margin of error.
Tip 7: Have some fun, add some conversational language.
Market research doesn't have to be a dry and boring topic. The industry has been stuck in this frame of mind for far too long in my opinion. I understand the need to remain unbiased and objective but who says you cannot have a little fun while doing so?
Try adding some clever language here and there. What about a prompted message when someone tries to skip a question without selecting an answer? Something like "We know you're busy but hey we're almost done. Before we can move on we need an answer here."
Sounds a little lighter than "This question requires an answer" right? Thought so.
We've even swapped out boring 1 to 5 scales with labels for each. When asking about IT capabilities and cyber security software at companies our scale ranged from "5" which was "We are cutting-edge, leaders of the pack, people want to be us" to "1" which was "Our IT and cyber security software is likely from the Kennedy administration."
In a dense and boring market research survey, it's okay to lighten things up here and there as far as we're concerned.
Tip 8: Use as little words as possible in the questions.
Brevity is essential. Don't use 15 words when you can say it in 10 for your question. Some are better than others at this. Remember the idea is to ask a question so well a 3rd grader can understand it.
So put aside your ego (and thesaurus) and be as direct and to-the-point as you can in your question. You don't have to sound like a rocket scientist. Although it might impress your boss or your client it will not impress your survey respondents.
At the end of the day, that's the audience that matters the most.
Tip 9: Ask only the most important questions.
Related to the prior tip, in addition to short questions, think short surveys. As a company, we probably have hundreds of unanswered questions we'd like to ask customers and non-customers but it's not realistic for the respondent.
We find shorter surveys (even if it means more frequent separate surveys) work best. Try to aim for 10 to 15 questions maximum which puts you at about 3 to 5 minutes.
Anything beyond that and you are truly pushing your limits to keep respondents in the survey. Also, we find telling them exactly how many questions is important. It's more relative than minutes.
Minutes can be bent and subjective, number of question cannot. Some may spend 3 minutes on an open-end while others spend 3 seconds.
Tip 10: Think about ordering of choices.
For your closed-ended questions (single and multiple response) it is essential to understand how order bias impacts your data. Unless your responses are chronological (age, income, etc.) it is crucial to randomize response options for choice. Also, think about inverse order on other questions.
The key here is to make sure results are as objective and unbiased as possible. You can address this through ordering and sequence.
Tip 11: Think about single response versus multiple response.
On that topic think about whether you should make the question(s) single or multiple response. Do you want only the most important factor from a list? Or do you want to allow the respondent to select multiple factors from a list?
There are pros and cons to each. Make sure you change your radio buttons for these. Most software will use circles for single response and check boxes for multiple response.
This delineation is important because it helps the respondent quickly pick up on single versus multiple choice at a glance.
Change your radio buttons for single and multiple response questions to different shapes.
Tip 12: To select or rank?
If you think respondents might select all 8 categories if you offer a multiple response question or select all "5" on a 1 to 5 scale you might want to consider ranking.
Rankings involve asking a respondent to tier selections (most satisfied to least satisfied, or most important to least important). The respondent is asked to place rankings 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 in open text boxes next to each category.
Another option here is MaxDiff. This asks only most important and least important.
This can often be a nice change of pace and ensures some differentiation in your data points.
Tip 13: Consider your screener criteria.
Depending on the topic of your survey, do you want everyone to qualify? Looking for feedback only from respondents from specific geographies?
Include a question at the beginning of the survey which disqualifies those from outside areas will be important.
Some other common screening criteria includes ages and industry questions (e.g. not working in market research).
Consider who you want taking your survey and the types of questions that will weed out those you do not want feedback from (including potential competitors).
Tip 14: Route appropriately to disqualification pages.
Okay, so you've set up a few disqualification screener questions. You'll also want to accompany that with a re-route to a disqualification page. Survey platforms should accommodate for this.
If the respondent disqualifies they are sent to an end survey page thanking them for their time and interest but unfortunately they do not qualify for the study.
This ensures they can go no further into the meat of the survey.
Tip 15: Create a custom redirect page for completions.
Similar to those who disqualify, you'll want to do the same for those who complete your whole survey. This is a special thank you page or off-site page which thanks the survey respondent for their feedback.
Rather than abruptly ending the survey or simply closing the window this is the proper way to end the experience. If the window simply closes the respondent may think technical glitch or mistake which leaves a sour taste in their mouth.
Tip 16: Jump right into the survey, no jargon.
Another mistake of amateur survey writers. You've got the respondent to click on your survey. They are ready to roll. Their shoes are tied, fingers are cracked, and... an opening screen that talks about more survey instructions and paragraphs of introductory language.
Talk about a let down.
Just get right into the survey. The respondent clicks go. They go right to Question 1. Some survey platforms will actually embed the first question of the survey right into the survey invitation and reminder to ease this transition.
We say, smart.
Tip 17: Review it on mobile, tablet, and PC.
It might look good on your Apple laptop but does that mean your spacing, themes, and formatting will look the same on tablet and mobile? Maybe or maybe not. You better check.
Obviously, mobile design plays a major role. More than half of all surveys are completed via mobile device. Mobile-friendly design means much more than themes and spacing. It also supports a need for short questions, short scales, etc.
Too bad there wasn't a 4 minute video that talked about 4 basic tips to make your online survey mobile friendly.
Wait a second...
Here are 4 tips to make your surveys mobile friendly.
Tip 18: Make sure questions are mutually exclusive.
Once of the first lessons in market research is MECE.
It stands for mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. Mutually exclusive means each answer category is separate from one another. A simple example is age being listed as 18 to 24, 25 to 34, 35 to 44 and so on.
Not 18 to 25, 25 to 35, 35 to 45 and so on.
If you are age 35, which category do you select?
Tip 19: Make sure questions are collectively exhaustive.
The second piece of MECE is collectively exhaustive.
Here you want to make sure your answer choices cover the realm of all possible answers. If you ask about social media platforms and only list Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, what about Instagram? What about Snapchat?
You should either include those in a list or include an other(s) category. The other category is always a fail safe in response options.
Tip 20: Ask other(s) when needed, check other(s) early in fieldwork.
Tied to collectively exhaustive, check the other(s) early in your market research fieldwork. It's a tell-tale sign you might have missed a major category.
If you ask about social media usage and 60% select other and type in "Snapchat" you probably should include it as an answer choice.
Tip 21: Keep an eye on LOI and completion rates.
Your survey platform likely offers meta data on your survey respondents. This meta data includes things like time to complete and completion rates. If you told respondents your length of interview (LOI) was 3 minutes and it's taking respondents 7+ minutes it could cause problems.
If your completion rate is extremely low (30% or less) this likely means your survey is taking too long. A 30% completion rate means only 3:10 are making it all the way through your survey.
The shorter the survey, the higher the completion rate.
Tip 22: Consider using separate collectors.
If your online survey software allows for the set up of several web links and collectors we highly recommend using these. This especially comes in handy if you are sharing your survey across panels, social media, and other lists.
Using a separate link and collector allows you to track completes separately. Facebook working better than LinkedIn? Twitter working better than Facebook? You can track completes separately which gives you another level of insights.
Separate collectors give the survey team the opportunity to break down number of survey completes delivered by separate sources.
Tip 23: Add goal language for the client or your management team.
This is something that you can incorporate into your Word document. It is a note underneath each question in your survey. It explains why the question is being asked, why it is valuable, and how the results can be used to drive decision-making.
This adds more depth, context, and explanation to the survey draft for the client or management team when reviewing. It is removed for the online version and is obviously not shown to respondents.
Still an excellent value-added for your client or boss.
GOAL! Sorry we had to.
Tip 24: Separate into columns if needed, keep it above the fold.
Much like a newspaper advertisement and story, keep it above the fold.
This comes into play for PC screens and mobile screens.
For a long question or long list, think of the amount of scrolling and reading that needs to take place to read the entire question. That's a lot of effort for a survey taker. Don't be surprised if it becomes a significant point of drop out.
Something to consider for a B2B audience that might have heavy use of desktop for the survey is to separate long lists into 2 columns side by side so all choices remain on one screen view.
Tip 25: Limit your response choices to 8 to 10 categories max.
Don't get caught up in listing multiple response categories that last 2 or 3 sentences each or extend beyond 8 to 10 choices. I've seen lists that go on forever.
In these cases the survey designer or market research firm should really only show the 8 categories that are most likely to be chosen after pre-testing and then include an other(s).
Tip 26: Limit your open-ends, think mobile phone finger pecking.
Using too many open-ends is a no-no in online surveys. It's okay to use a question here and there but don't overdo it. For a 15 question survey you should not have more than 1 or 2 open-ends.
Open-ended questions are free text comment boxes. They might take a long time to type a lengthy response while pecking a tablet or phone. It's always better to make the majority of your survey closed-ended.
Here are the pros and cons of open-ended and closed-ended questions.
Tip 27: Understand sample bias. You get back what your advertise.
In a world of convenience sampling (what's the easiest way to get survey completes), proper sampling bias has gone to the birds a bit.
Just remember where and how you sample will have a major impact on your results.
Advertising your survey on Facebook? Don't be surprised if you struggle to get 18 to 24 year-olds to complete your survey.
Also, don't be surprised if social media becomes a high source of awareness for your company advertising.
Tip 28: Share the live data link with clients and team members.
One of the key benefits of using an advanced survey platform is taking advantage of its capabilities. If it offers the ability to share a live data link, use it.
This can be a passcode protected link which tabulates up to the second data for your client or management team. Because nowadays, no one has patience for that final report right?
Tip 29: Test your email invitations.
Along with testing your survey, don't forget to test your email invitation as well. The survey platform should allow you to send a test email to your inbox to see how it appears to the respondent.
Check the email for typos, grammar, and to make sure the survey link is working correctly. Always better to be safe than sorry.
Tip 30: Offer an unsubscribe link.
In that email invitation and reminder, you need to include an unsubscribe link. This is usually at the bottom of the email text. This gives the respondent the opportunity to opt-out of this survey and potential future surveys.
A must-have as you'll likely get a few of these.
Everyone does. No matter how great you think your invite is.
Tip 31: Send reminders.
Going into our online survey projects we always plan on sending at least 1 reminder, possibly 2. In online survey research, those who respond off the bat to a customer survey are either really happy or really unhappy. Reminders help weed out everyone in-between.
You'll likely get the vast majority of responses after the first invite. Expect half of that on your reminder. Finally another half of that on your 2nd reminder.
It's largely decreasing returns after the initial invitation.
Just like your survey should be tested. You should also send test invites for your email text and reminder text for review.
Tip 32: Think about phone call reminders.
If response rate is below expectations, think about using reminder phone calls. This mixed-mode approach can create a good return. You can either remind respondents to take the survey if you have a list or complete the survey with them by phone if they have the time.
This is why it is always important to tie your email addresses to a unique identifier and phone number. You never know when it might be needed.
We've seen excellent return from even 10 to 20 hours of reminder calls after survey invites.
Tip 33: Ask respondents to join a panel.
Use one of the final questions of your survey to ask participants if they'd like to join a market research panel. A panel is a way to create a pre-qualified pool of participants who can assist you with your future market research efforts.
The best way to start building out a customer panel is to do so through an actual survey.
Tip 34: Ask customers to provide a testimonial.
We've included this line of questioning in several of our customer online surveys.
If the respondent rates your company high on satisfaction or likelihood to recommend you can include routing which shows them a question asking them if they would be willing to provide a testimonial for marketing purposes.
If they select "yes" you can include an open-ended text box for them to type in a testimonial.
Tip 35: Ask if they'd like a copy of the survey results (if applicable).
Another way to encourage participation or engagement in the survey is to ask participants if they'd like a copy of the survey results. This may include an executive summary, whitepaper, or infographic.
This helps with buy-in. Although this might not be applicable depending on your audience and the nature of your survey, it's something you want to consider.
Tip 36: Ask if the respondent would like a follow-up from the company.
Another question you should consider including in your online survey is asking the respondent if they'd like a follow-up from your company for any reason.
If they select "yes" you can ask what the reason is and then pass the customer contact to the appropriate team.
This closed-loop system is a large driver of ROI and value in customer surveys.
Phone call reminders can make a huge impact on response rates.
Tip 37: Consider a progress bar.
The progress bar is usually located at the bottom of the survey and indicates the percentage completeness. If the respondent is on page 4 of 10, the progress bar will read 40%.
This helps in short surveys to show respondents they are making quick progress. However, in long surveys this could hurt because it keeps percentage complete and the time it is taking to complete the survey top-of-mind for the respondent.
Which might make them think, "boy, this is taking forever. They said 3 minutes and I'm only 50% complete."
Choose. But choose wisely.
Tip 38: Allow a "back" button or not?
Some survey designers choose not to allow a back button on surveys. This prevents the respondent from going back and changing answers to qualify or skip a lengthy pattern of questions.
By doing this you also run the risk of the respondent clicking the wrong answer by mistake and not being able to go back and make the proper correction.
This is usually a wash, but not surveys do allow a back button.
Tip 39: Customize your theme.
Make your surveys look crisp and clean. Match the style and color scheme to your company colors or client's colors. This may even include the logo in the header.
Your survey needs to pass the eye test. When a respondent opens the link they should be impressed by the look. This helps with engagement and willingness to participate.
If your survey looks like it was built by a 1st grader or looks like a geo-cities website from the mid-90s, you might have an issue with response rates.
Tip 40: Make the font big enough. Think 80 year-old, not 8 year-old.
It's expected that many will participate in your survey via mobile. So the screen will likely be very small so it's important to plan for this. Try to use larger fonts in your survey so they show well on-screen.
Bigger font also ties into making sure your question wording is short. So those 2 themes play hand-in-hand together.
Tip 41: Think about other ways to sample if response is poor.
Not getting what you need from your customer newsletter list. Response rate is poor? Think about other unique ways to sample your customer population.
Maybe you can post a link on Facebook so those who like your Facebook page have an opportunity to take your survey. Or maybe you can post a link on Twitter to your followers.
Think about other similar sample options that mimic or match the audience you are trying to reach.
Tip 42: Consider sending a thank you note.
Another often forgotten online survey tactic. Underused as well. This is the process of sending a quick thank you note to those who replied to your survey.
You must figure if they take the time to answer your survey, they might deserve the time to be thanked formally through a separate email.
In this email you may be able to show 1 or 2 things you plan on acting on from the feedback which further drives home the importance of the survey.
Tip 43: Prepare a topline summary immediately after fieldwork ends.
Now that fieldwork is done, think about preparing a one-page summary or infographic of the findings. This might be a little less crucial if the client or management team had access to the data through an online survey link throughout the process.
Still very important though. Not everyone will want to read through the large comprehensive report a week or 2 after fieldwork. All they may be looking for is an infographic.
You can take care of that here.
Tip 44: Think engagement, engagement, engagement.
Mix in a use of rating scales, slider scales, star scales, and other types of fun scales such as thumbs up ratings or something as quirky as happy face ratings.
Although they seem childish, the mix and match of scales keeps the respondent interested. Who wouldn't get bored with radio button after radio button?
Your job is to collect quality data but to also keep the respondent answering questions. Mixing in engaging scales accomplishes that.
And yes, we stopped at 44 because our market research firm is based in Syracuse.
We bleed orange here.
Bonus Tip: Contact Our Market Research Firm in Syracuse
Questions about your next online survey or need advice? Contact our team at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 315-303-2040.
We also field questions about Syracuse college basketball and football.
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