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Running online surveys and polls - tips, software and tools

Running a web site can be a hit and miss affair at times. We try our best to provide solid information and products to attract visitors, encourage subscriptions and sales and importantly, return visits from these people. Sometimes we assume too much as to what our visitors want and don't want.

Digging through available industry statistics can give you an overall view of preferences and trends, but if you already have well established site traffic you may find that the "rules" do not apply.

Each established site tends to attract a certain kind of visitor, and perhaps the profile we build in our own minds of our visitors and customers is incorrect.

Easy to use survey software

There are many ways of eliciting feedback from visitors, from very personal strategies such as direct email communications, to the impersonal figures and bar charts of our server log reports which identify popular pages and therefore, areas of interest.

An excellent additional tool is to run polls or surveys, either intermittently or on an ongoing basis. A well thought out survey can give you a fairly accurate snapshot of what your visitors and customers want or don't want; providing you with valuable information to take into account as part of your marketing and general online business strategy.

For example, many of the major news services run simple polls and surveys on an ongoing basis. These usually consist of quick questions with multiple choice answers. The results give the news services an idea of what their viewers are thinking and their opinions on a given subject. The news service can then provide information more tailored to the majority of its users.

Tips for running a brief survey

A survey doesn't necessarily need to be a 300 question rigorous psychological test, in fact; it really shouldn't be. A simple question, regularly changed is all that is needed to begin building up some good demographic information regarding your site visitors. Once in a while, run a more thorough survey to gain further insight.

In single question surveys and polls, instead of just offering Yes/No options for answers, try and give visitors a few options which will allow for gray areas. If these gray areas become prominent in survey outcomes, then further polls can elicit more information on these specific points.

The whole idea of a brief poll/survey is that it's not invasive, takes up too much of your visitors/customers valuable time or interrupts them from the goal of their visit; such as a purchase. One well thought out question, a few choices of broad answers - everyone benefits.

Running lengthier surveys

A more detailed survey with dozens of questions can provide you with even greater insights into your visitors and customers, but bear in mind that you'll be asking people to give you their most valuable commodities in order to complete the survey - their time and opinions. Very few people will want to spend 30 minutes completing a survey without something substantial in return. 

For this reason, you'll still need to make the survey as easy to complete as possible, allow the flexibility for those who do have the time to spend to give more complete answers and also to appeal to respondents' WIIFM (What's In It For Me) motivator.

To begin with, before the person is presented with the survey questions, let them know how long it will take to complete. Some companies have a awful habit of popping up a box on their site asking for feedback, and then sucking up a great deal of the visitors' time. Often these surveys are abandoned halfway through as the respondent has no idea how much longer it will take to complete.

I also suggest that no survey question should be mandatory unless there is a powerful incentive being offered and all questions be multiple choice with features to allow for added comments. 

The reason for not making questions mandatory is quite simple. Someone may be able to provide you with very valuable information on the first 9 out of your 10 questions, but question number 10 is a showstopper for the person. If they aren't able to submit the survey because of their inability or unwillingness to answer the last question, then you'll not only frustrate the person, but also lose the valuable data that they were able to give unless you're using survey software or a service that collects the data as it's being filled out.

By the same token, you don't want people to accidentally miss questions, so I suggest that an option for each question be "not applicable" or "not sure" or "I don't know"; depending upon the nature of the question. That way you'll be sure that the person has at least seen the question.

While questions with multiple choice responses are a great way to save respondents time and allow you to more easily group and analyze data; the choices offered may not suit everyone, or some people may want to provide you with added information.  It's a good idea to add an "other" text field at the bottom of the list of choices, plus a "further comments?" field so respondents can go into further details if they wish or provide an alternative answer.

Offering survey incentives

In order to get the best participation rates; especially for lengthy survey; recognize that what you're asking the person to do is of great value to you and that you'd like to recompense or reward them for their time in some way. 

The compensation could be a discount coupon, a free whitepaper or report not publicly available on your site; or perhaps a sweepstakes entry. See the survey not only as a way of gaining valuable data, but also as a marketing tool to generate more sales.

It's very important that when offering an incentive that the incentive will not influence the types of answers the person may give; which defeats the purpose of the survey.

Start creating your own surveys with Survey Gizmo today!

Use your mailing lists

One of the best groups of people to put your survey to is your subscriber and client lists. These are the people who have expressed more than a passing interest in your online business, are somewhat familiar with you and therefore they have the most valuable information to give. 

Allaying privacy fears

Wherever possible, surveys should not require the name or other confidential person details of the respondent. For example, instead of asking their age, ask for an age range. Instead of asking what their job is; offer a range of industry categories for them to choose from.

People are for the most part hesitant to give out personal identifying information for fear of what you may do with that information. To encourage the best response rates, reassure people at the beginning of the survey by telling them that the survey is anonymous; and if it isn't, what safeguards you are giving their information. For example, you could say something like: "the personal information you provide will not be sold to a third party".

Survey tools

There are many software packages available for conducting surveys, ranging in price from free to many thousands of dollars and applications you host on your own server, or are hosted on the service provider's

Locally hosted survey software

Locally hosted means refers to software hosted on your own survey. 

Instant Form Pro is an easy-to-install and easy-to-use survey and form creation tool. No technical expertise is necessary and it utilizes a drag and drop interface. Instant Form Pro isn't just for surveys, but can be used for forms, questionnaires and testimonial
generators. Some of the many features include

- Numerous field type selections 
- Spam Protection 
- Form manager 
- Email notifications 
- Form validation
- Easy installation wizard 
- Integrated with site's look and feel
- File upload function
- Export data to Excel or CSV 
- Show/hide any field 
- Tooltips for respondents
- Password protection
- Enhanced security
- Customizable redirects
- Full source code
- Tell-A-Friend feature
- Custom thank you pages

Instant Form Pro - survey software

Learn more about Instant Form Pro

Remotely hosted survey services

In order to take advantage of the features of high end survey packages without the huge outlay; consider utilizing an ASP (application service provider). These are essentially 3rd party providers that offer high-end survey applications for a small monthly fee, or charge based on the number of responses processed. 

The other benefits of using an application service provider include:

a) they are responsible for security
b) the ASP keeps the software updated, adding new features
c) the ASP and ensures stability. 

There's nothing worse than emailing thousands of clients asking them to complete a survey and the software you run then suddenly crashes, suffers other glitches or is unable to cope with the load of many people accessing the survey simultaneously.

One such provider is Survey Gizmo. SurveyGizmo offers a wide range of plans catering for everyone from small online business right through to large companies; including free accounts - perfect for surveys where you're only expecting a couple of hundred responses. Survey Gizmo offers some great features including:

  • A range of standard templates, or you can create your own.

  • Over a dozen different survey question/response formats can be used (text, multiple choice etc.).

  • Track survey results in real time

  • Ability to embed online survey questions in the pages of your site.

  • Use the SurveyFeeds tool for continuous contests, sweepstakes.

  • Flexible, detailed reporting with many data mining options

  • Export to Excel or other databases.

  • Upload mailing lists and contact those potential respondents directly from the Survey Gizmo interface.

  • Send out reminders to those who haven't completed a survey.

  • Open API available to integrate into outside applications.

This is just scratching the surface - Survey Gizmo offers an incredible range of other high-end features valuable to  marketers, researchers, bloggers and online business owners. As mentioned, a basic survey account is free and perfect for surveys where you're only expecting a couple of hundred responses. For surveys where you're expecting thousands of responses, Survey Gizmo's pricing is very reasonable and offers very good value for money.

The benefits

The benefits to you through utilizing survey data can be immense. The feedback received can assist in planning new site content, design elements and products or services you offer. Your visitors and customers will then benefit by having more relevant content and features to suit their needs. 

If you act on the feedback you receive from the survey, your visitors will notice and feel appreciated and respected. This will encourage loyalty and increase the chances of them recommending your site to others. Even in this age of bleeding edge Internet marketing tools, nothing beats word-of-mouth referrals.

Related resources

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Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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