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Mar 27, 2002
How To

How to Conduct an Online Survey, Part I

SUMMARY: This how-to article is specifically intended to help publishers create surveys that get results. However, other marketing professionals may find it useful too. In Part I, you will learn what the three biggest mistakes of online surveying are, and get details on four practical goals you can accomplish with (different) surveys.
Generally online publishers make one (or two) of the three
biggest mistakes in online surveying:

Mistake #1: Only surveying readers when you are about to change
business models and want to get an idea of how many folks will

Mistake #2: Generously allowing every department, from ad sales
to editorial, to add in their own questions until the final
survey is far longer than 7-10 questions (sometimes longer than

Mistake #3: Sending readers a survey that is formatted in a way
that's not easy to answer (such as excessive use of drop-down
boxes, or open comment boxes, or just a list of emailed questions
with no online response form at all).

Over the next month, we will bring you notes on how to avoid these
problems and conduct surveys that really work.

First things first -- before you launch a survey you need a
single goal. This is often remarkably painful and boring. After
all, you probably survey your customers or readers fairly seldom,
so now you are tempted to shove everything into one giant effort.

Survey recipients are more likely to respond if they think
you really care, and if there are a limited number of questions
so their own limited time is respected. A list of too many
different questions in a row just makes recipients feel used and
thoroughly under-appreciated.

Pick a single goal and tell the other departments involved to
schedule their own survey later in the year. (Yes, if you make
the experience pleasant enough folks will answer additional
surveys on a regular basis.) Here are some goals to pick from:

-> Goal A: Impressing potential advertisers

First always look to the competing media's media kits when
creating a survey to impress potential advertisers. (You can
usually get this online, or by calling the ad sales department
and saying you are a potential advertiser yourself -- which indeed
you are!)

The data that the media company flaunts to media buyers, either
in the media kit, or if it is a US trade magazine, in its BPA
audit statement, is the exact data you should ask for in your
survey. That way media buyers can compare "apples to apples" as
they so love to do.

Your other choice is to look for weaknesses in these kits and
exploit them in your survey, by focusing on very different

No matter what, your survey to impress media buyers must be
consciously created in league with or in opposition to the other
media selling ads against the same targeted demographic's

One last clever idea we have seen used -- if there is one advertiser
you yearn to land who has definitely already exhibited signs of
openness to online/ezine ads, you can try surveying your readers
asking the questions that advertiser would ask if only they had
access to them. Such as, which brand do they prefer and why?

Then use the results to close the sale. We have seen this tactic
work particularly well in the pharmaceutical field.

-> Goal B: Enable your move from free to for-fee

As expert Philip Kleinman of (Market Research News)
says, "Who in his right mind is going to say he thinks he should
pay for something he is currently getting for nothing? I'm
afraid that asking silly questions does not constitute a guide to
wise commercial decisions."

If you are planning to run a survey to ask, "How much would you
pay for my now-free service?", think again. Instead, make this
survey truly useful from a marketing and editorial standpoint by
asking questions specifically about content makes or would make
readers lives easier/better/less-awful/more rewarding.

(Note: You are not asking what they would pay for now, but rather what
would be the most useful content to make their lives or careers
more joyful. In traditional marketing parlance, this is known as
"feeling out their pain points" from which all marketing copy -
and often editorial direction - can derive thereon. If you can
offer to salve the pain, the cash will follow.)

This is one surveying goal that most marketers and editors are
prone to overlook because you get a certain amount of arrogance
after you have published a few issues, and perhaps met some
subscribers in person. "Oh we know what they want!"

Trust us. You do not.

Every single time we know of that a publication has run a survey
with this goal they have uncovered at least one fact that shocked
either marketing or editorial or both. Do not be complacent
about your handle on the marketplace (especially if you are
planning to go from free to paid soon), survey them.

At the very least, you will learn which benefits to lead with as
your primary and secondary focuses in your "subscribe now" sales
copy. (Neither "No more ads" nor "We take these credit cards"
are rarely, if ever, to be found among them.)

Or you may discover a hot button that will lead to your first
killer sales premium (free gift with offer).

-> Goal C: Improving Editorial

The general rule of thumb these days seems to be: If you bore or
annoy them in email or online they will never, ever bother to read
you again. (With email especially, folks are not looking for a
reason to read you, they are looking for a reason to delete you!)

So you need to make sure your editorial is utterly compelling
to your target audience. Even if you think your editorial is
dead on, chances are that it can be improved in three ways with
results from reader surveys.

The first way is to compare the topics that readers say they
really care about with an audit of the stories actually covered
in your past 6-10 issues, and to make adjustments moving forward
wherever the two do not match.

The second is to run short surveys (sometimes even polls --see
below) that provide results to questions that will help your
readers feel that they are part of a true community of peers.
It is easy to cancel a subscription; it is much harder to leave a
peer-group. Let's face it, getting readers to participate
in other types of online community, such as bulletin boards or
chat, has proven to be harder than expected. A series of quick
surveys or polls may be your best bet.

The third is for outside editorial attention. While rival
journalists will hesitate to write stories about how great you
are, they often cannot resist the lure of an easy numeric headline
- "Survey results show X% of Shoe Lovers Hate High Heels," or

In fact, polls of this nature can be the quickest route that a
new publication can take to outside fame.

-> Goal D: Gathering testimonials

As you have probably noticed, many of the most compelling marketing
campaign offers both online and off are partially or wholly
successful due to glowing customer testimonials.

Yes, sometimes fabulous testimonials walk in the door. More
often you have to ask for them. Luckily online surveys make it
easier than you think, as long as you focus on this as the goal
of your survey rather than any others.

-> Next week: The Art of Online Survey Question Writing

BTW: What is the difference between a survey and a poll? A poll
is generally one quick question that can be answered by voting on
a highly limited number of options (such as: "Do you think it
will rain tomorrow? Yes/Maybe/No"). A survey usually has more
than one question, which often require more thought than a
simple vote.

Another difference is that, aside from government elections,
polls are generally so quick and simplified as to be fairly
useless from business or editorial purposes. They may be fun
involvement devices for a Web site, but rarely provide value
beyond that.

See Also:

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