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The Simple Power Of Surveys: How To Boost Your Marketing By Finding Out What Your Customers Want

By October 12, 2012June 26th, 2015Marketing Insights & Strategy
The Simple Power Of Surveys: How To Boost Your Marketing By Finding Out What Your Customers Want

Do you sometimes sit and stare at your Facebook page or email template and wonder, “Now what?”

What should I say?

What do my customers want?

It’s one thing to know that your customers are on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or awaiting your next brilliant email campaign.

It’s another thing entirely to know what the heck you’re supposed to do about that.

I found myself in exactly this position recently. I was managing a marketing effort for a client and hit a wall. I couldn’t get anyone to engage. I couldn’t get anyone to respond. I couldn’t even get anyone interested in the free stuff.

I had no idea what these people wanted!

I could’ve thrown my laptop out a window (tempting sometimes) or beaten my head against the wall of not-knowing (there’s a dent to the left of my desk) but do you know what I did instead?

I asked them.

That’s right, I put a cork in the drama, stopped whining, and decided to ask those people what they wanted.

If you occasionally find yourself stuck, not knowing where to go with your marketing or how to grab your customers, or if you get the sudden urge to take violent action against all things marketing, try a survey instead. Here are some tips for implementing a survey and a couple of things you can learn along the way.

The Obvious Question: If People Won’t Engage, How Can You Expect Them To Take A Whole Survey??

The simple answer is: because people love to give their opinions. Think about it. If I asked you right now, “Why do you use Facebook?” I bet you could come up with one or two answers. (You get bonus points if you said, “For the cat photos” and double bonus points if you know anyone who says, “For the endless photos of people’s lunch.”)

If you simply ask people to share their opinions, they will, just because they want to and because people appreciate it when their opinions are valued.

But the other reason people answer surveys is for the perks.

Combine a reward (“free” always works) with something people are already inclined to do (share their opinions) and you’ve got a pretty powerful combination.

That’s exactly what I did and here’s what happened…

Out of a mailing list of about 1,000 people I got 98 responses. That might not seem like much but consider the following:

  • For 6 months I’d been sending out email campaigns to this same list of people. For each campaign, maybe 2 or 3 people responded by claiming an offer or taking part in a challenge.
  • I closed the survey after a week, mostly because we wanted to cap the cost of the perk.

Now what do you think of that result?

Setting Up A Survey: How To Construct Questions

Are you convinced that a survey is a good idea? Then sit down and put one together! Take it from someone who obsesses a lot about getting things right: it’s not as hard as it might seem even if you’ve never done it before.

I used SurveyMonkey which has a free option so you can get started risk-free plus some paid options for when you become a pro and want more control and features. And it’s super easy to use.

Now about those questions…

Keep this one word in mind as you write them: fun.

A survey is not an essay. It’s not an Achievement test. If you want to maximize the likelihood of someone taking and completing it, make it fun. Ask questions that you’d want to answer. The same way that you’d craft a blog post or a Facebook update, write your questions with a little personality. In other words, don’t take yourself so seriously!

Here are my thoughts on questions:

Keep them short. If you find your questions spanning three or four sentences, it’s time to rethink. Be punchy so someone can quickly read and understand what you’re asking.

Go for multiple choice. Ask yes/no questions or questions with a few either/or choices so someone can only select one option. It’s the easiest way to get people to commit to “the best answer”. You can ask “choose all that apply” questions but I find that this can give you too much information instead of targeted information. For example, I asked my client’s customers what type of offer they’d want to receive via email. I forced them to select one option because I wanted to pinpoint the top choice vs the bottom choice and so on. Had I asked them to “choose all that apply” they may very well have selected several or all of the options and that wouldn’t have been as helpful.

Think “top 10”. If you ask more than 10 questions you risk losing people before they finish. Remember, this is a bit of market research, not material for a dissertation. If you want to gather a lot of data you might want to consider breaking your questions up into multiple short, sweet and more enjoyable surveys. Try something really crazy: ask only one question. Frame it as the single most important question your customers can answer for you right now.

Add comment boxes judiciously. A question like “What offer do you want to receive?” Doesn’t need a multiple choice question followed by a comment box. Could you add it? Sure, but then it makes your survey look long and complicated and people feel compelled to think. Don’t make them think! However, sometimes a comment box can give you valuable information. I asked my client’s customers, “Do you follow us on Facebook?” And followed it with, “If you said no, why not?” I got some eye-opening responses on that one, I can tell you! (More on that later.)

Ask for an email address. Sometimes anonymity is important in a survey. People may be less inclined to share an opinion if they have to own it. But my thought on that is: I don’t want your opinion unless you’re willing to own it! Plus it lets you get in touch with people afterwards if you want to follow up on complaints, concerns or even just to email a special “thank you.”

Ask yourself if the question is necessary. It’s tempting to throw questions in that are generic or ask for demographic info like age and gender. But when you’re doing a marketing survey, you want to be sure that every question is important and will impact the result. Does it really matter whether your respondent is male or female? That’s up to you to decide.

Put the easiest questions first. If you’ve got six multiple choice questions and three that require “thinking”, put the multiple choice first in your survey. It will allow people to breeze through most of the survey and be too committed to give up by the time they reach the (slightly) more difficult questions at the end.

Don’t make assumptions. If you ask your customers, “Why do you like reading my blog?” You’re assuming that your customer likes your blog to begin with! “Do you enjoy reading my blog?” Is a better way to begin. You can always follow that up with, “If you said no, why not?”

Keep questions specific. If you want to know whether your customers use Facebook and Twitter, it’s best to ask that as two separate questions. If you ask whether people “use social media” you’re lumping together an awful lot of possible responses and won’t get an answer you can sink your teeth into. Ask instead, “Do you use Pinterest for pleasure?”

Determining The Perk

The perk doesn’t have to be the best offer you’ve ever made but it should be universally appealing. Remember, people enjoy sharing their opinions. If you make an offer that’s only “meh” then you may actually be putting people off who would have taken your survey without any perk at all.

Let’s say you run a restaurant. If you offer a coupon for a free crème brulee to anyone who completes your survey, I guarantee I’d look at that and think, “Meh. No thanks.” You’re inadvertently and unnecessarily limiting your survey to responses from people who like crème brulee. If that’s what you want, go for it! Otherwise stick to something like a free dessert, or better yet, 10% off an entire check.

Make sure you can afford whatever you’re offering. My client and I capped the survey so it wouldn’t get too expensive. Imagine if we’d gotten all 1,000 people to claim a $10 perk! Nice market data, but at what cost? If you can afford that, go for it. But do think ahead of time about what your limitations are.

Most of all, make sure you deliver. Carefully keep track of your respondents and whether or not you sent their reward. It wouldn’t hurt to send out a follow-up email to all your respondents to ask whether they’ve received it or even whether they’ve used it.

Survey’s Ready: Now What?

Now that you have all your ducks in a row, it’s time to send your survey to customers. With a survey link, you can send it to your email list, post it to Facebook, Twitter or any of your social channels, even send out direct mail with a survey link.

If you’re going for direct mail, I strongly suggest customizing your link so it’s friendly and easy to type. That’s an upgrade in SurveyMonkey, but well worth it if that’s your audience.

SurveyMonkey also integrates really easily with MailChimp so if you’ve got both accounts then sending your survey link to an email campaign is as easy as clicking a button.

Here’s another thought: depending on the type of data you want to collect, it may be wise to duplicate your survey so you have a different link for each audience. For example, you may want to send out the survey via one link to your Facebook audience but another to your email audience. Then you’ll be able to track differences between the responses of different groups of people.

Oh, The Things You’ll Learn!

Every survey is different. It’s given for different reasons, with different questions and to different people. What you learn will be unique to your business and purpose. Here are some pretty interesting things I learned that should also give you a good idea of how surveys can be so powerful.

Email subject lines matter. I wasn’t testing subject lines but I learned something pretty wild anyway. Each of the previous emails we’d sent began with this subject line: Your [month] deal from [our company].

Works as far as telling people what to expect, right?

Well, one of the questions we asked was, “Have you ever taken advantage of one of our email offers?” The answers were overwhelmingly “no”.


It wasn’t because of the type of offer or a lack of interest.

It was because, according to the respondents, they never received an offer.

How is that possible? All 98 of them got the survey email. Why wouldn’t they have gotten the “offer” emails?

If I were a betting woman, I’d say that they did receive the emails. They just never bothered to open them. They never registered the fact that we were offering anything.

This email was different. We started it with the perk, something like this: Free [perk] from [our company].

And we went from oh, about zero responses to 98.

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

Comment boxes are a goldmine. The multiple choice questions we asked got to the heart of some things we wanted to know. But the comment boxes were truly enlightening.

People told us why they did or didn’t do certain things. They told us how. They told us… get ready for this… what they wanted.

And in the end, that’s what we wanted to know!

People don’t do what you think they do. One of the questions we asked our respondents was whether they followed us on Facebook or Twitter.

Overwhelmingly, the answer was no. But that wasn’t the important part. The important part was why.

This may shock you but the reason nobody was following us on social media was because they didn’t use social media. At all. Zero. Never.

So much for those offers we sent out that promised a great perk if they’d post a photo to Facebook, huh? It was a valuable lesson in not making assumptions. And it will steer our marketing in a completely different direction.

The other interesting response to that question asked a question in return.

Q: Do you follow us on Facebook?

A: No, why should I?

Why, indeed. If you needed proof that you’ve got to give people a reason to follow you online then there it is.

Imagine learning all that with a few questions (six, to be exact).

The good news is that surveys are easy to run and can be fun for your customers at the same time that they’re useful for you.

The really good news is that the distance between “what now?” and a treasure trove of inspiration doesn’t have to be an endless tundra. It can be as simple and short as asking the people who matter most – your customers – what they think and want. With a couple of strategically worded questions you can get your marketing on track and going strong in the right direction.

How about you? Have you ever used a survey to your advantage? Did you learn anything surprising?

Join the discussion 22 Comments

  • Great article Carol, i think every company need to do it and even pay people to fill on surveys, just to improve their service and products. I have an online business and i am really considering this survey method .. thanks

    • Glad you enjoyed this. I think surveys can be great and can certainly give you some ideas based on real customer feedback. Personally, unless you’re doing significant market research (such as a 30 minute survey) I would stay away from paying people, and stick to a special offer instead. People sometimes get put off by the idea of payment (especially if it’s low!) but would be happy to take a survey for a few cents’ worth of coupons or a special offer.

  • clarestweets says:

    So true! Surveys are great ways to start the process of getting inside your customer’s heads. Great point on the “free perk” offer that what we think our customers want and what they really want can be two very different things.

  • Wonderful! You always tell such great (helpful & entertaining) stories.

  • Adrienne says:

    Another great share here Carol and I couldn’t agree with you more.

    I get a lot of questions at times about what to write about and I tell them to ask their list. Write a post and ask your readers. Now for what you’re sharing here, of course, ask the ones that matter the most what it is that they want. That’s definitely “catering to your list”.

    I did this some time back when I was thinking about creating a product. I wanted to see what people wanted from me. Boy oh boy, they definitely told me.

    Thanks Carol and as always, you share the best stuff with us girl.


  • I wanted to share this because the information we got back was really amazing and I think sometimes we overlook the most simple things like JUST ASK. We try to figure out what to do and go crazy but there’s no need. Customers will tell us what they want!

  • You must have read my mind! I have been thinking of doing a survey lately to my list. I have one question I need to figure out from people and want to do it in a survey form with a perk. It keeps on coming up in my mind (you know how that goes) but NOW, after reading your wonderful information you have shared, I have an excellent guideline. A great push to do it. Thanks so much

    • I know what you mean – sometimes those ideas sit in the back of your brain and you keep thinking “I have to do this….” but it somehow never happens! Glad I could give you a push 🙂 It’s so easy to do surveys that it’s not even worth thinking about – just do it!

  • Carol MInarcik says:

    Hello Carol, this artical was right up my alley. I too have been wondering what to do to wake my list up. I am going to try this method, today infact and see what they will answer. As they all originally answered my emails for some sort of tool advice. Then most of them went to sleep on me. Thanks for the advice.

  • Hi Carol Lynn,

    What a great idea 🙂 I have a few lists from different sites and its hard to pinpoint any common ground (at the moment) so I have to word some of the emails differently even though I’m often making the same offers.

    I can now send a survey to each of the main categories and fine tune my approach to each one.

    A benefit I’ve just thought of is that I may find some people are on the wrong list to best suit their needs.

    Thanks for detailing how you put it together, your thoughts on questions and layout and length of the survey it’ll help no end 🙂

    I’ve just come from Annie’s blog and she’s currently holding a survey with the perk being an Amazon voucher for $25.00. Which is a really good idea and available to us all 😉

    Thanks Carol Lynn, I’ve stared this in my RSS as I’ll be coming back when I put it into action this week.


    • Good thinking, Barry… maybe some of your people would be better off on different lists! Annie’s perk sounds good, it’s definitely something everyone can use. Let me know how your experience goes!

  • I have taken many surveys before and the longer the survey the more I click off and don’t finish it. What gets me to open it? Perks help, but it has to be something I would actually use. Freebies are fine, but like you said, if I don’t like the creme bulee, it won’t don’t you any good.

    And they have to be straight to the point. If they go on and on like surveys do for Focus groups, I tend evaluate if the money offered is worth completing the survey.
    This were fantastic advice and ideas to use when I do my own.

    • I know what you mean, Sonia. I belong to a couple of panel groups and take surveys regularly and sometimes they are so long and tedious that I don’t care what the reward is – I quit! Those should be saved for focus groups and market research and they should have a really good reward. People like us and small businesses can use very short, simple surveys to get some information from their customers. Then it’s fun for them and good for us.

  • Sue Price says:

    Hi Carol

    I think surveys are important. I am like Sonia if I click through and there are too many questions i just leave. They cannot be too long.

    Sometimes I answer them because if the perks but sometimes just because I have a point of view I want to say. Especially if someone is asking me what else I need to learn or which topic.

    Great article as usual Carol.


  • Wow!

    Awesome post, Carol. You have added many things that I haven’t ever thought about (I have used surveys in the past, but didn’t get much response, due to having no perks). But, you are right about the tips here. Having a perk, putting easy questions at the beginning, limiting the number of questions all play small roles when put together determine the conversation rate of the surveys 😉

    I could use many of these tips (and you did gave me some thoughts to think about. Like sharing the question – why should our subscriber follow us via SM? Up until now, I had different plans for each of these, but didn’t plan to showcase and compare each others, guess that’s something I have to think about).

    Appreciate the post, Carol! Thank you!

    • I’m glad I gave you some things to think about for your next survey. I hope these ideas will help you get a better response. People definitely like a little bonus, just something that says “thank you” for taking my survey.

      And you’re right, these are all pretty small thins, but together they add up to a bigger picture. Good luck with your next survey. Let me know how it goes!

  • Hi Carol,

    Another expert post of yours. To me a survey needs to be not boring, and as you say even “fun” would be even better and short. Sometimes I had taken surveys that were longer than a school test and really who has time for that?

    Then, yes, if there is a reward at the end of this all the better. it’s definitely important to ask your potential/customers what they really want. It help you not to waste you time aiming at the wrong target so to speak.

    A lot of great tips for anyone wanting to create a survey here, for sure 🙂

    • I agree – even short surveys, if they’re boring, are still no good. You have to come up with questions that people would want to answer. Plus it’s so easy to do that anyone who feels “stuck” should definitely put a survey out to their customers!