January 24, 2012
Case Study

Small-Business Marketing: 5-step email survey process leads to 600% revenue growth

SUMMARY: Addressing customers and prospects in a language to which they will respond, can make the difference between a quick sale and a slow one, or, in some cases, losing out completely. While it’s possible to figure out what resonates over time, think how many opportunities you could lose while you climb the learning curve.

Read on to learn how a small business owner accelerated her self-education through an email survey. See how she learned enough about her clients in five steps, completed over two weeks, to revise her messages and achieve a 600% increase in annual revenue.
by Jeri Dube, Freelance Reporter, MarketingSherpa


After eight months building her entrepreneur coaching business, Tommi Wolfe, President, The Startup Expert, realized her messaging didn’t resonate with her target audience.

"I know what it takes to build a business, but the way I describe it isn’t necessarily the way my clients are going to describe it," said Wolfe. "I wouldn’t say I missed the mark, but I felt like I needed to improve."

The feedback Wolfe sought wasn’t focused on changing her product. She knew what startup entrepreneurs needed to reach six-figure earnings within a year. Before she could guide them, however, she had to capture their interest, which meant listening to and learning from them.


Wolfe was and is diligent about collecting email addresses from everyone she meets at speaking engagements, seminars and event booths. With this list of potential clients, it made sense to use email as the channel for a survey. It was quick, cheap and easy.

Read the five steps that explain how, in two weeks, Wolfe created, launched and analyzed an email survey so successful that the revised messaging based on the results led to a 600% increase in revenue.

Step #1. Work with a receptive audience

Wolfe felt she earned the right to ask her audience for help because her emails consisted of more than promotional content. For example, her monthly e-zine contains a feature article followed by relevant recommended actions, a customer success story, a free offer and a listing of events where she will appear.

This isn’t to say that she didn’t promote her training seminars, coaching services and programs. She did. But for every marketing-only email, she sent at least three that contained content useful or encouraging to entrepreneurs.

Wolfe doesn’t use a fixed ratio, but if she starts to see too many opt-outs, she backs off on the marketing and focuses more on content. Less than 1% of her audience opts out when she sends an email of her high-value content, which is why she considers it valuable.

Step #2. Write and organize the survey questions

Since Wolfe was very clear on what she needed to learn, the survey was targeted and concise. Although she did not do any formal testing for usability or wording, she completed the survey herself to ensure there were no bugs.

The intuitive, easy-to-use survey tool Wolfe used was initially free. Ultimately, she needed to upgrade because she exceeded the number of responses provided at no charge.

Start with an open-ended question

Although you might think it best to ease people into the survey with a multiple-choice question, Wolfe’s survey started by asking, “What are your biggest challenges as a self-employed professional?” Choosing an open-ended question was deliberate because she didn’t want to influence (or prime) the audience with her wording. She wanted to uncover the challenges her target audience faced, described in their terms.

"This is important from a marketing point of view," said Wolfe. "If you know your clients’ biggest problems, then it’s easy to market to them."

The responses to this question were specific and even personal. In addition to the marketing perspective Wolfe gained, it reinforced her commitment to her clients.

Understand their priorities

After the subjective question, Wolfe asked survey takers to rank a list of topics from one to eight according to their interest in them.

Describing every area she thought important allowed her to see how her perspective stacked up against the reality of potential clients. She found several surprises.

For example, given the focus on social media, Wolfe expected her survey respondents to rank "Using Twitter to boost business" quite high, but it ranked the lowest. "Using Facebook to boost business" also ranked in the bottom third.

Keep the survey short

Wolfe set up the tool so respondents had to complete all of her questions. Therefore, if she was going to get any results, she had to ensure the survey did not consume too much time.

She settled on six questions. The second one included 16 topics to evaluate. There was nothing special about these numbers except that they accomplished her goal.

In her note soliciting survey-takers, Wolfe made two promises. The first was that the survey wouldn’t take longer than three minutes. The second was a nice "thank-you" gift, which is discussed in the next step.

Step #3. Find the right incentive

"I had people tell me you can get a much better response if you offer a nice 'thank-you' gift,” said Wolfe. "So I did."

The criteria for the gift was that it be high value, desirable, yet not costly. Wolfe chose an e-book she had authored, Kick Butt with Laser-focused Goals.

She describes the book as "a little goal-setting program in full color and beautifully illustrated," which she priced at $46 when first sold on her website. Since it was downloadable, she incurred no shipping charges.

Step #4. Craft subject line and content

Wolfe aimed to make both the content and subject line simple and direct. For the subject line, Wolfe leveraged the relationship she had built with her email audience. She had enough goodwill stored up to ask for help.

The subject line read: "I need your advice please."

Not only was it simple, it also piqued people’s curiosity. Here was the coach -- the expert -- seeking the wisdom of those she usually guided.

Within the note, she wanted to accomplish five goals.
  • Position the request as a favor

  • Relate how the audience would ultimately benefit

  • Promise the survey was short

  • Describe the "thank-you" gift

  • Specify who she wanted taking the survey (i.e., self-employed professionals)

In addition, if anyone who received the email was not a self-employed professional, she asked them to forward it to their contacts that were.

The note also included a picture of the gift, and most importantly, a highlighted link to the survey. This call-to-action was positioned midway through the note.

Once she finalized the writing, Wolfe proofread it herself several times. She also had her assistant review it.

Step #5. Compile and leverage the results

It surprised Wolfe that people continued to respond to the survey over the course of two weeks. She had expected if they didn’t take it immediately, they wouldn’t take it at all. And that wasn’t the only unexpected finding.

"My biggest surprise was the high interest in generating passive income, which is not a great money-making technique unless you are already very established with a big list," said Wolfe. "This knowledge gave me an opportunity to get real and honest with clients about their misconceptions."

Through her initial questions and the rankings, she instantly understood what the survey takers held most important. They wanted to make money as quickly as possible.

Although this seems obvious in retrospect, before the survey, Wolfe emphasized the specifics of how she would help them grow their income. For example, Wolfe knows that creating a niche is important to a small business and her messaging used to reflect that.

Once she learned that her audience didn’t realize its importance, she continued teaching her clients to create a niche, but she stopped using the concept to attract customers.

Essentially, the survey changed how Wolfe introduced prospects to her business. Instead of telling prospects how she would help them achieve their goals, she focused on the goals themselves from the client’s perspective -- a subtle but important distinction.

She wanted her prospective clients to recognize themselves; therefore, her website’s homepage now focuses on common concerns of new entrepreneurs. The webpage copy poses four questions:
  • Are you worried about making enough money in your business?

  • Do you have a great service but are not sure how to market it?

  • Do you hate seeming pushy when you sell?

  • Are you struggling to find clients quickly and easily?

A paragraph later, after reassuring the reader these worries are normal, even for talented professionals with great ideas, the page states, "The good news is there’s a way you can easily attract your perfect client, start making profits within your first year … and still have time to relax and have a life!"

Wolfe can’t attribute all of the changes she’s made to the survey, but it was pivotal in her understanding what prospects need to hear.

Even now, almost a year after the survey, Wolfe still uses it as a reference. She mines it for the problems people expressed. She’ll often design new offerings around what she finds.

The survey was so instrumental to how she markets her business that she expects to conduct a survey approximately every 18 months.


The survey response far exceeded Wolfe’s expectations. Her results include:
  • 8.1% clickthrough rate

  • 48% open rate

  • 81% clickthrough rate for those who opened it

The survey showed Wolfe how to adjust her messages to better resonate with her audience.
By changing how she initially approached prospects, including the language she used, she realized a 600% revenue increase.

Useful links related to this article

Creative Samples:
  1. Dwell in Possibility, Wolfe’s monthly e-zine

  2. The survey

  3. Email sent inviting people to take the survey

Email Invite and Q&A Format Double Survey Completion Rate: 4 Steps

Starting from Scratch: 5 Steps to Develop and Grow an SMB Strategy

SurveyMonkey -- Provider of the survey tool

The Startup Expert -- Tommi Wolfe’s entrepreneur coaching business

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