5 Essential Tips to Craft Effective Survey Questions

What’s the point of surveying your audience? Maybe you’re trying to collect information from your target audience so you can better manufacture your product. Maybe you’re trying to figure out what to do next and figure a survey is a good place to start.

Either way, you’re collecting data through market research. If you want to boost your marketing effectiveness, surveys are a great way to better learn your audience so you can improve. The problem is, most of us don’t.

In this article, we’ll show you the essential tips to craft an effective survey.

Before, we get started, let’s take a look at how most business owners mess up surveys so that you can avoid making the same mistakes. 

How Business Owners Mess Up Surveys

As a business owner, you already know surveys can be beneficial. But are you using them effectively? Or are you wasting your energy by committing one of these four mistakes?

1. They Don’t Understand the Goal

For surveys to give us valuable insight into the wants and needs of our target audience, we have to understand the goal of each specific survey. Every survey should have one of three goals:

  1. Develop Knowledge Base: These surveys collect data to develop knowledge so you can better tailor your product to your customers’ wants and needs.
  2. Forecast the Future: These strategic surveys help you anticipate what’s ahead and figure out the best direction for the future.
  3. Orchestrate Engagement: These transparently self-serving surveys ask the audience for feedback, reviews, or permission to sell to them. The only data they collect is leads. (I don’t advocate these surveys and won’t focus on them — but they exist nonetheless).

Before you create a survey, evaluate its purpose. Without a clear goal, the answers won’t be worthwhile.

2. They Don’t Know What to Do with the Answer

What’s the true value of collecting that data? If you don’t know what to do with the answer, don’t ask the question. Asking superfluous questions not only decreases the likelihood your target will complete the survey, but it also adds unnecessary confusion when sorting through responses.

I started hosting workshops for business owners and management several years ago and naturally, I wanted a post-event survey. My list of questions was getting rather long — more than I would want to answer if I were the user — so I changed my criteria.

Each question needed to be uniquely actionable. For example, I wouldn’t ask a conference attendee if they would attend again AND ask if they would recommend the conference to others. Likewise, I don’t ask people if they like the hotel if I never plan to use the hotel again anyway.

I ended up with three simple questions. Here they are and the reason that question is actionable:

  1. Did you learn something that you are ready to put to use? (Not all content meets everyone’s expectations, but if the attendee leaves with something useful, that matters more than what they didn’t use.)
  2. Did the meeting rooms, meals, and networking areas make you feel comfortable? (We want the hotel and conference rooms to not be a distraction.)
  3. Did you meet someone new that you will follow up with after the conference? (We are first and foremost a networking event. Did we help the attendee network?)

Each question should have a clear benefit to knowing the answer. If there’s no reason for you to know the answer, don’t ask the question.

3. They Ask Questions that Negate the Rest of the Survey

Asking a question that negates the rest of the survey works against you in two ways. First, you’ll frustrate your audience if they feel like they’re taking a survey for no reason. Second, you’ll miss out on potentially valuable information if you keep your audience too narrow.

For example, I took a survey about LED display walls. The first question was: Do you use LED walls or plan to use them in your future? Since my answer was no, why would I continue to take the rest of the survey?

Don’t they want to know why I don’t use them? You can still get valuable feedback from people who don’t use the product if you don’t marginalize them at the beginning. View this as a marketing opportunity. Ask them a different set of questions that meets your purpose or helps you better understand your audience.

4. They Use Surveys to Identify Prospects

People also muck up surveys when their main purpose is to identify people to sell products to. This is a terrible sales technique. You’re asking the customer to do your job for you.

All surveys are essentially a favor. They require someone to give up their valuable time. A person should need to learn something, do something useful, or ultimately get something in return for their effort. If you’re only offering to enter them in a drawing for a gift card (that they’re not going to get), the only takers will be people who like surveys or gift cards.

Some business owners use surveys to generate sales calls, but this over- complicates the mission. Why create a survey when a “call me” button will accomplish the same thing?

5 Tips for Crafting Effective Survey Questions

Creating worthwhile survey questions takes intentionality. It’s not rocket science, but again, you have to know your purpose if you want to do it well. Here are a few tips to help get you started.

1. Ask the question you’re trying to get answered.

You don’t have to be clever about your questions. Just ask.

Do you like your breakfast cereal crunchy or squishy? Or other? We often try to overcomplicate the real question, or we create more answers than necessary. Keep it straight forward.

As a kid, I did an in-person survey for a market research company where they told us they were testing french fries. They brought out three plates of french fries and ketchup and asked what we thought about the fries. They were all the same fries, but the ketchup was different. I resented the fact they kept asking me to taste the fries when they clearly wanted me to taste the ketchup. I kept saying, “All the fries are great, but I hate this ketchup!”

Don’t assume your audience is stupid and won’t catch on. Ask for what you want.

2. If you want binary answers, use multiple choice.

Multiple-choice answers help keep your results clear. Just be sure to include all potential answers as options.

Then, ask yourself why a binary question needs to be asked. Could you have asked a better question?

3. If you want nuance, add an area for open comments to your multiple-choice questions.

Adding a comment area below a multiple-choice question gives the person a way to clarify and provide more insight… if you want it.

Think of it like a restaurant owner surveying her customers: Do you like soup or salad? 

Someone answers both, then leaves the comment: Soup in the winter, Salad in summer. Now you’ve captured the nuance of how weather affects their choice. Next time, the restaurant owner can learn from the survey and might ask,

What’s your favorite pre-dinner dish in the summer?

  • Hot soup
  • Cold soup
  • Salad
  • Fruit plate 
  • Bacon-wrapped anything

Now, they can ask a better binary question.

4. If you want to rank answers, craft your question appropriately.

This goes back to knowing what you want from the question in the first place. If you want to know the top three breakfast cereals, ask everyone for their top three choices. Don’t just ask everyone’s favorite cereal and pick the top three by frequency.

If you don’t ask exactly what you want to know, your results will be inaccurate. If you ask for a favorite cereal when you want to know the top three favorites, you’re saying, “Of the people forced to select only their top favorite cereal, here are the top three answers we got.”

That doesn’t tell your real answers. Perhaps people’s first choice of cereal is scattered — 30% Cheerios, 35% Lucky Charms, and 25% Special K. But, when you look at the second choice, it’s 50% Frosted Flakes. That’s your clear winner.

Asking for the data you want allows for clearer, more accurate results.

5. Don’t presume the person taking the survey understands the context of your question.

You can review your survey 100 times and not catch misunderstandings because you know the context. But the person who takes your survey may not have the same understanding.

Have someone with a different perspective review your survey. Then, modify your surveys so the context of the question is clarified.

Now that you know how to craft good survey questions, let’s move on to interpreting your surveys. 

4 Bonus Tips for Interpreting Surveys

1. Don’t apply emotion to the answers.

Surveys are a way to get constructive feedback in a non-emotional setting. Don’t take it personally. Use the information or don’t, but don’t let it ruin your life, regardless.

2. Don’t violate anonymity.

We all know that we can track people who take surveys. Even if you make it anonymous, you could find out who answered. But never use that information. You break trust and violate the purpose of the survey itself.

3. Avoid bias.

If you’re conducting research for product features, your job is to provide feedback to the internal customer. If you get the answers you’re looking for, you constructed the survey incorrectly. Do not present survey results with that same bias.

Be wary of introducing bias in the survey. A well-constructed survey will engineer most of the bias out of the responses — which in turn makes it easier for the interpreter not to insert bias into the responses.

Since most surveys are inherently flawed, the inclination to interpret the responses with bias is always present. Find the neutral answer and remember the comment section. If you want nuance and shading, it comes from comments and is open to interpretation.

4. The results of a survey are never definitive… except when they are.

The only “definitive surveys” are the ones that ask a yes/no question and receive a 100% response to one answer. If everyone answers ‘yes’, we know we can depend on this result. 

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