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Survey vs interview for research: discover the difference

It’s more important now than ever to listen to your customers. Competition was already fierce, but the pandemic saw many more businesses move online, paving the way for competition from around the globe. Now, organisations in every niche and industry have to keep tabs not just on local market players, but also on online businesses making inroads.

So how can you survive and thrive in this environment? By listening to what your customers want, and giving it to them. Listening enables you to build a relationship, which inspires customer loyalty and reduces customer churn. It’s also a great way to identify gaps, opportunities and threats, so you can act on them appropriately.

But what’s the best way to listen to your customers? Not all listening tools and methodologies are created equal, after all. In this article, we’ll look at how you can use surveys and interviews to listen to your customers, which method is best for which situation, and explain how SurveyMonkey can help.

A survey is the process of asking a group of people a series of questions to gather information and draw conclusions. There are various ways of surveying people, from face-to-face and on paper to over the phone—or today’s most popular option: online. Online surveys, in particular, are extremely cost-effective, as they allow you to gather responses from many people for a small price tag and minimal effort.

Surveys can be used for a variety of different purposes and range in complexity depending on what you’re researching. 

On the simpler end of the scale, there are event feedback surveys, where you ask people about their experience attending a particular event. The questions might look something like this: How would you rate the event? What did you like about it? Was the event too short or too long? And so on.

The Net Promoter Score, a key metric for measuring customer satisfaction and loyalty, is also a great example of a relatively simple survey. 

But it’s also possible to use more extensive surveys. For instance, you might want to take a closer look at customer satisfaction, asking not only what customers like and dislike about your product or service, but also how you can improve, which competitor they would choose over you, and why.

Surveys are also a valuable tool for market research. Use a survey to understand what your current and potential customers think about your organisation, products or service. Or to help craft a marketing message that will resonate with your target audience. Market research surveys can be quite in depth, and might have as many as 30 questions.

Similar to a survey, an interview involves asking a series of questions to gather information. But interviews are normally one-on-one verbal conversations, with one interviewer speaking to one interviewee at a time. Interviews can be carried out online, over the phone or in person.

Because of their one-on-one nature, interviews are much more time-intensive than surveys. But they also have several advantages. They allow you to delve deeper into particular topics of interest. And while a survey is generally static, interviewers can ask follow-up questions or clarify what the respondent meant. Depending on the format, it’s also possible to interpret the way someone reacts to and answers questions, taking note of their tone of voice or non-verbal communication cues.

There are three main types of interviews for research purposes: structured, unstructured and semi-structured, with each type suiting different research goals.

Structured interviews involve asking predetermined questions in a set order. As the questions and order don’t vary from one participant to the next, it’s easy to compare results across interviews. But because they’re less flexible, they’re more limited in scope and there’s less opportunity to explore particular topics in greater detail.

Structured interviews are particularly useful for researching topics you’re familiar with and when you need to compare answers from one interviewee to another, such as investigating brand awareness or brand reception.

As the name suggests, unstructured interviews are more flexible. They allow the interviewer to ask questions based on responses and to go with the flow of the conversation. However, with unstructured interviews, it can be easy to unintentionally ask leading questions, which influences the findings. For this reason, unstructured interviews need to be facilitated by someone who’s experienced with this type of research.

Unstructured interviews are great for investigating a broad topic you might not know all that much about, and when building rapport with the interviewees is important. For instance, you might use it when you’re looking to gain a broad understanding of your customers and their needs.

In reality, most research interviews fall under the semi-structured umbrella. Often considered to offer the best of both worlds, semi-structured interviews follow a framework of questions, but the order in which they’re asked is flexible.

This type of interview is ideal for exploratory research, such as when you’re looking to identify gaps in the market or when you’re carrying out political research—say if you’re wanting to understand constituents’ needs.

The below table summarises the general traits of these two research methodologies.

One organisation or person surveying many survey respondentsOne person interviewing one interviewee
OnlineIn person, via video call or over the phone
Cost-effective and quickRelatively expensive and time-intensive
Many responsesFewer responses
Gain a good overview of a topicGain an in-depth understanding of motivations behind individuals’ actions
Easy to draw conclusionsMore difficult to draw overall conclusions

A survey is a research method that involves asking people questions to gather information. Generally, there are multiple survey respondents and just one person—or often, one organisation—administering the survey. These days, most surveys are carried out online, via written questions and answers; but face-to-face, paper and phone surveys are also possible.

Interviews differ from surveys in that they’re normally verbal conversations and typically involve one interviewer speaking to one interviewee at a time.

Though you might think of surveys as being used for gathering quantitative data by asking closed-ended questions and seeking hard facts, and interviews as being used for gathering qualitative data by asking open-ended questions to explore motivations and perceptions, the reality is far more nuanced. Both surveys and interviews are best off incorporating some quantitative and some qualitative questions.

Similarly, it’s not really a case of surveys being better than interviews, or vice versa, but rather that they complement each other. In fact, you can use surveys to gain a general overview of a topic, and then use interviews to explore subtopics or motivations in more depth.

It’s also worth explaining the difference between a survey and a questionnaire, as the two are often confused. A questionnaire is a written set of questions, while the meaning of ‘survey’ encompasses asking the questions, the process of sending out the questions and analysing the responses.

SurveyMonkey can get your research off to a flying start with questionnaire examples and sample templates certified by professional survey methodologists. But just because you’re using a template, that doesn’t mean your survey has to look bog standard—check out our customisation options

And to make sure your questionnaire reaches your target market, give SurveyMonkey Audience a go.

We also have some great guidance from survey experts on how to create successful surveys. Or for those who want extra reassurance, why not try out SurveyMonkey Genius? Bringing together AI, survey experts and machine learning, SurveyMonkey Genius gives your survey the best possible chance of success with guidance, error identification and recommendations, automation and predictions on your survey’s performance.

Surveys and interviews are both valuable research methods for listening to your customers; they just serve slightly different purposes. Interviews are more resource-intensive but can provide great depth to your research. Meanwhile, surveys are quick and easy to get off the ground and to analyse—especially with SurveyMonkey’s survey templates and suite of tools—and bring an excellent breadth to your findings. Create a successful survey in 10 easy steps

A questionnaire is the set of questions you ask people. A survey is not only the set of questions you ask people, but also the process of sending it out, and then gathering and analysing the responses.

A survey is normally written and sent out to many different people. An interview is normally a one-on-one verbal conversation.

Interviews allow you to delve deeper into a particular topic or to clarify something the interviewee said. The disadvantage of interviews is that they are time-consuming and can be expensive and impractical to arrange, meaning you gather fewer responses than with surveys.

There are three main types of interviews: unstructured, structured and semi-structured. Unstructured interviews are flexible and follow the flow of conversation. Structured interviews ask a defined set of questions, in a specific order. Semi-structured interviews follow a question framework, but the order in which the questions are asked is flexible.