September 03, 2009

Special Report: How to Conduct Email Surveys - Tips to Lift Response & Write Subject Lines

SUMMARY: With the economy still shaky, consumer confidence gyrating, and the timing of a recovery uncertain, it’s hard to know what your customers want from your products and services these days. One solution: Ask them, using an email survey.

Here’s a special report from our archives to help you make the most of email surveys. We’ve compiled a list of best practices to make your survey engaging enough to get your customers to take part. Plus, we include advice on writing effective subject lines and tips on lifting your response rates.
Email is hard to beat for cost-effectiveness when it comes to wanting to know what your customers think about you. But there are still name brands out there who don’t leverage their email lists to poll their customers.

We’ve gathered a list of reasons as to why you should email a survey or poll to your customers. And to help you get the most bang for your buck, here are the soup-to-nuts dos and don’ts that can make your email survey a success:

5 Reasons to Survey Customers With Email

-> Reason #1. Email is a budget’s best friend

Online surveys are budget-friendly, first, because they don't have to be printed and mailed. And they can be tweaked and updated as well. But there are other advantages:

- Rapid response time. Christian Vanek, Co-Founder, SurveyGizmo, says 75% or more of your responses return in the first three days.

-Tracking. Marketers can hook up their site analytics package to their surveys and track them just like a microsite.

- Data is automatically entered and ready for reporting; there’s no need to keyboard everything in or for telemarketers to record responses.

- Assessing the ROI of online surveys is more difficult but can be done. Different types of surveys require their own calculation methods, but you can determine ROI if you understand the objectives of your survey. In general, Vanek says, ROI “should not be measured based on the number of responses you collect, but on the effect that the knowledge you gained has for your organization.”

Here’s an example: For a survey to identify factors that contribute to high shopping-cart abandonment, the ROI should be based on the effect of your decisions made from the survey. If you learn that the checkout process it too hard and you do a split test to improve it, then your ROI is the cost of the survey versus your increase in sales from the decline of abandons.

-> Reason #2. Show customers that you care

A well-written survey that truly indicates you care about what your customers think without pitching an offer can be downright refreshing. Therefore, don’t be tempted to sell them on your products. Make sales as secondary as possible, even if you are pitching a discount for completing the survey.

-> Reason #3. You can contact customers in a timely fashion

It’s always good to get customer feedback. But make sure you consider the timing of a survey, especially when engaging new customers.

We recommend that retailers automate a survey to new customers within three to five days of order fulfillment. But a survey by a computer hardware or software firm after an IT-service phone session should follow different rules. For example:
- Make sure the customer’s problem has been resolved first.
- Let the highs or lows of the experience even out over a day or two so a customer can give a truer assessment of your team’s efforts and capabilities.

-> Reason #4. Re-engage infrequent customers

Online shoppers buy from several brands these days. Sending customers a survey a few months after their last purchase reminds them of your products. Here’s a good combination: Use a survey to show that you care about their opinions and offer them a discount to come back. A poor response might indicate that your email list is stale.

-> Reason #5. Gather testimonials and constructive criticism

Whether it’s with an open-ended comments box or “reply” button, customers can be inspired to open up about how they feel about the user experience. Positive responses make great testimonials; negative comments can be used to fix problems. Make sure you obtain permission with language in the survey to use their comments. Unsolicited words can serve as powerful marketing language.

Response Rates to Expect

Here are some response rates to anticipate with a well-presented survey or poll:
- For prospects, a respectable click-to-completion rate is between 1% and 5%.
- For customers, the click-to-completion rate should be anywhere from 20% to 55% -- depending on the brand.
- For a consumer marketer, you should see open rates above 15% and click-to-completions greater than 25%.
- B-to-B marketers should aim even higher.

At the same time, your market niche can determine your response rate. A brand packed with loyal patrons, such as Major League Baseball, will get a higher response rate than a car manufacturer sending an email about a particular model.

5 Tips to Lift Your Survey Results

Before you even start to craft your survey or poll, plan to have your customers complete it via a Web link. Embedding it in the email will trigger rendering and filtering issues that could really scuttle your efforts.

You will be wasting your time if you try to embed the survey in the email message itself, Vanek says. “It will function on a shrinking percentage of browsers, but support is very limited and the experience for the survey taker is likely to be unsatisfying.”

The best practice right now is to write two to four paragraphs of strong call-to-action copy, provide a well-placed link to the survey and then make it easy to fill out. Here are six tips to help you get the biggest response:

Tip #1. Keep it short. The survey should take only a couple of minutes to complete. Anything over 12 questions for a consumer survey will lower your response rate, although B-to-B surveys can be a few questions longer. If you must write a lengthy questionnaire, divide it up into sections. You don’t want your survey participants to abandon it because of “scroll fatigue.”

Tip #2. Test, test, test. Email is a fluid medium. Don’t follow a textbook. “Throw the holy cows under the bus,” says Consultant Avinash Kaushik. “Test calls to action, creative, format, delivery options, etc.”

Tip #3. Don’t incentivize completion of a survey to prospects or customers who haven’t purchased for awhile. They may rush through the survey to redeem their special offer, which could invalidate your efforts.

Tip #4. Make unsubscribing easy. Don’t use small font sizes to describe how to opt-out. “In [our survey] tests, a clearly stated and easy ‘unsubscribe’ policy actually had the fewest opt-outs,” Kaushik says. “Customers trusted the company more because they knew how easy it is to stop the emails if that ever became an issue.”

Tip #5. Sample over and over again (but no more than twice a year) a small percentage of your audience to generate the most powerful email-enabled research. “If you do this, you’ll be able to keep a constant eye on what’s going on. You can detect seasonal patterns, and, in the long run, absolute numbers don’t matter -- trends do,” Kaushik says.

Subject Lines: Keep Them Short

Open rates are just as important for surveys as they are for any other communication. But the situation calls for a slightly different call-to-action approach. Here are four strategies for writing survey subject lines:

- Short and punchy is preferred. If possible, keep your subject line at five words or less.
- Express the intent of your survey to customers with words that indicate there is not a lot of work to be done by them.
- Create value in the phrasing by framing the email as an invitation.
- Be realistic about how long the survey will take to complete. “Honesty -- especially about time commitment -- really works best with our audience,” says Donna Fabionic, CMP Media.

An example of a good subject line is from Bill Me Later, which emails a satisfaction survey to new customers: “Your feedback is appreciated.”

Vince Talbert, VP Marketing, says the open rate exceeds Bill Me Later’s regular campaigns. It gets an average of 48% opens and 18% completions. Here’s how they accomplished the high response:

- Outside the greeting and signature, they use three paragraphs that total 16 words.
- There are only two hyperlinks in the message -- one for the survey and one allowing recipients to unsubscribe.
- They never cross up the survey email with sales offers or links to products. “We do not view the survey email as another marketing touch point. We view it as continuing a dialogue with the customer,” Talbert says.
- They tap independent consultants to help write their surveys. “If you get a [big] firm to do it, they are going to want to do the entire execution where they mark up the whole thing. It’s not as cost-effective.”
- They validate the data they get from their surveys with other channels, such as the “Tell Us More” link on the homepage and telesurvey efforts. “Some customers answer differently in different channels. You want good data, so it’s worth finding out.”

The best thing to do is to test your list with several subject lines and see what works best. Fabionic says CMP Media’s best-performing subject line is:
o “Take Our Brief Survey on [topic] and Enter to Win XXX”

Two others that they’ve tested:
o “5 Minute [topic] Survey - Win XXX”
o “Take TechWeb Network’s Survey and Enter to Win XXX”

SurveyGizmo’s Vanek recommends including some form of personal motivation in the subject line or body message. “People are often willing to take a survey or study for free if they feel it helps them or a community they identify with. Assuming it doesn’t take too long to complete.”

Fun Polls Work for Wine Club

Many marketers are using fun surveys or polls to gauge customer interests. Bottlenotes sends its twice-a-month ‘Bottle News’ emails to push their wine clubs and products while offering news and information. At the bottom of each newsletter, the eretailer includes a link to a customer poll. The poll link accounts for 12% of total newsletter clicks.

Questions they have asked:
- How much do you salt your foods?
- How do you take your coffee or tea?

“It’s important that the questions are fun. You want to avoid overt questions that make the readers feel like they are research subjects,” says CEO Alyssa Rapp. “On a granular level, we can get [product marketing] information back that shows us specific pieces of the puzzle that we cannot get anywhere else. They engage our subscribers and have a positive effect on sales.”

The polls take only “about seven minutes” to add to the newsletter. Her team works on the copy for less than an hour each week, brainstorming questions before honing then down to one. The landing page includes a map system that shows how Bottlenotes customers are voting.

All in all, the polls give Rapp and her team a batch of customer information they really appreciate. “If our data shows that a customer thinks they know a ton about wine, then we know that ‘Wine 101’ marketing isn’t what we need to be using for their segment. We need to use more sophisticated wine selections and information to hit their [hot buttons].”

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from surveys:

Bill Me Later:

Silverpop - Bill Me Later’s ESP:


Vizu Corp. – Bottlenotes’ polling technology provider:

Constant Contact - Bottlenotes’ ESP:

Avinash Kaushik’s site:


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