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Survey Tips

Five questions to ask for a successful survey

Five questions to ask for a successful survey

If you’re getting ready to send an online survey, you probably already have some questions in mind for your audience. It's certainly the case that the questions you ask your respondents are important and should be well thought out. However, the questions that you ask yourself before you send your survey are just as important, albeit less well known. These five basic questions – how, why, who, when and what – don’t get as much attention as the more popular questions that you include in your survey. But they should. Take a few minutes to answer these five questions before you start writing your survey. Your results will thank you for it.

1. How: How do you want to ask?

Okay, this is the easy part. After all, you’re reading this blog because you've already decided that you want to use an online survey to do the asking for you. So really, the place to start is our second question…

 2. Why: Why do you want to ask?

The most important step in a survey is working out what you actually want to know. It’s important to make your objectives really clear upfront; otherwise, the next steps of survey formation won’t go so well. For example, stay away from vague goals like measuring ‘satisfaction’. What do you mean by satisfaction? Do you want to find out whether your public awareness campaign was engaging and fun? Or whether it was informational? Or persuasive? Not only will a clear sense of the feedback you want upfront help you to analyse your data when you get it back, but it will also make your actual survey questions clearer and simpler, which is something that the people answering your survey will definitely appreciate. Which brings us to our next question…

3. Who: Who do you want to ask?

This may seem like a silly question, but it really is very important. Survey respondents should be a ‘sample’ of a ‘population’. A population is the entire set of people who you want to ask. For example, UK citizens; or non-profit workers in West Yorkshire; or teenage internet users in Birmingham. Your sample is the portion of that bigger population that actually ends up taking your survey. You can think of a population as all the fish swimming around in the North Sea and a sample as all the fish you caught on Tuesday afternoon. Working out which fish you want to catch (so to speak) is directly related to why you’re fishing in the first place. In other words, working out who you want to answer your questions is directly related to why you’re asking in the first place.

Let’s suppose you’re a non-profit looking to make sure you get lots of donations for your next year. Do you want to make sure your current donors are happy with the way you're spending their contributions?  Or are you trying to work out how to attract new donors? If it’s about your current donors, then your population would be all of your current donors, and to access that population, you'd just send your survey out to your mailing list of donors. Your sample would be the people who actually respond and fill out the survey. If you’re trying to get new donors, however, it gets a little trickier. First, you have to spend a little more time defining who exactly your population is, i.e. who could potentially donate to your organisation? Adults probably. Maybe only English-speaking adults. Perhaps if you’re a local, grassroots organisation, possibly only UK adults who live in Manchester. It’s really up to you! Now that we’ve tackled the question of who to ask, let’s move on to our next question…

Survey Tip: Need help accessing a sample of your target population? We have an Audience available to take your surveys.)

4. When: When do you want to ask?

So, to understand the ‘when’, let me bring us back to the fishing metaphor. When you go out fishing, how many fish you catch can depend on what time you go out to fish and how long you stay out there. Some kinds of fish tend to be easier to catch in the morning, others at night. Fishing for two hours will yield a different catch to fishing for two days. In surveys, depending on who you want to ‘catch’, you’re going to want to send out invitations at different points of the week and leave surveys open for different amounts of time, especially if you want to get more responses. Closing a survey too quickly can frustrate people who tried to respond and exclude people who are just a little slower at getting round to things. This could potentially bias the conclusions you draw in an unhelpful way. For example, if you’re trying to recruit new donors, you might be interested in what would motivate people who tend not to be quick responders. When you ask also depends on the actual substance of what you’re asking, which brings us to our next question…

5. What: What do you want to ask?

And finally, the question that you’ve all probably been waiting for. You’ve got your objectives and your sample population sorted. You’ve worked out when to ask them. But your survey is still blank. What do you ask? Well, that’s a complicated problem and there isn't just one correct answer. If you have clear answers to the last four questions, it should make the ‘what’ part a lot easier. There are so many different kinds of question designs and factors to consider, but here are some general guidelines to get you started:

First of all, keep your questions simple, straightforward and concise. This will make it easy for your survey-takers to understand what you’re asking and also make it easy for you to analyse your data. If you’re not sure whether your questions are easy enough to understand, test them out on a friend or someone who’s not familiar with your particular industry to make sure the questions are comprehensive. Next, if you’re going to give your survey-takers answer choices, try not to use more than seven answer choices for any given question as people can become overwhelmed. Also, make sure you label the answer choices. In other words, don’t ask your survey-takers to rate how happy they are on a scale of 1 to 5. Instead, ask them whether they’re extremely happy, very happy, moderately happy, slightly happy or not at all happy. Words are easier for people to think about than numbers.

There you have it. Stick with those five questions and your survey will be off to a good start before you’ve even started writing it!

What do you think? Have other survey methodology questions? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.