Conducting a Survey

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In doing marketing for any business it is sometimes difficult to know how to effectively reach your target audience.  What drives your consumer to buy your product or use your service?  What does your target audience respond to?  Does your target audience like your new product/feature?  If you don't know the answers to these questions, a survey may be the best way to find out.  But exactly how do you write a good survey that will give you the information that you need?  Well, the process of conducting a survey, analyzing the results, and drawing conclusions based on the results can be a very complex process.  Here are some simple steps to follow to get you started.    

1. Determine What You Need to Know

It is important to decide what information you need to receive from the survey before you start.  The first thing you want to do is determine what problem you are trying to solve and what information you need in order to solve it.  Once you have figured out what information you need to know, then determine what conclusions you would like to draw based on the data that you receive.  Then formulate a specific plan of attack focused on the end results, and use this plan to guide you in writing your survey.  It is also important to determine who you want to send your survey to.  Your target audience will influence the survey method, what kind of questions you ask, and the validity of the data you receive.  

Setting up a good foundation will allow for everything else to fall into place.  If you figure out what information you need to know before you begin to write questions, the questions will be focused on the information you need, which will lead to better results and conclusions.  

This blog entry explains this in further detail and gives great examples.  

2. Choose the Best Method

There are different types of surveys that you can use: mail surveys, online surveys, telephone surveys, and face-to-face interviews.  Consider which method works best for your target audience and the resources you have for conducting the survey.  If you choose to perform an online survey, you can use the following survey tools to help you create your survey: SurveyGizmo, Wufoo, SurveyMonkey, and Zoomerang.

3. Ask Good Questions

The most important thing when creating a survey is asking good questions that will give you the data that you need.  Focus your questions around the information that you need.  Questions are either focused on respondent's behaviors or their attitudes and beliefs.  The order of the questions in the survey is also very important.  The questions most relevant  to the information you want to know should be placed at the beginning of the survey.  Group related questions with each other, so questions focused on behaviors should be placed together and questions focused on attitudes and beliefs should be grouped together.  All demographic questions (age, residence, income, etc.) are best placed at the end of the survey.  

There are a few more basic things to keep in mind when writing your survey.  It is important to include a brief introduction to the survey stating the purpose and providing instructions.  A common mistake when writing survey questions is asking two questions in one.  For example, "Is the new exercise program motivating and challenging?"  It is better to separate this into two questions; one asking if the program is motivating and another one asking if it is challenging.  Keep the formatting and sentence structure consistent among all questions asked, and thank your participants at the end.

Check out Qualities of a Good Question for examples of what to do and what not to do when writing survey questions.

4. Gather Enough Data

You cannot draw any conclusions from your survey results if you do not have enough data.  It is usually not feasible to reach the entire population size*, so targeting a sample that represents the population is a more reasonable approach to selecting who to send your survey to.  You must distribute more surveys than you need responses in order to account for those who will not respond.  Not all of the people that you send a survey to will fill it out, so you must plan accordingly.  The following table shows the number of completed surveys that you need in order for the results to be statistically significant.  

Number of Surveys Needed
The best way to ensure that you receive enough usable surveys is to figure out the number of completed, usable questionnaires needed in the final sample, and then work backward.  So assuming a population size of 5000, you can conclude from the table above, that you need 880 completed surveys in order for your results to be significant.  With the following calculations you can conclude that you will need a starting sample of about 2716.  Assume that 90% of the people you send a survey to will actually receive it.  Of that 90%, assume that on average about 40% will respond, and that 90% of the returned surveys are complete and usable.  (880 / 0.9 / 0.4 / 0.9 = 2716)

5. Analyze Results and Draw Conclusions

After you conduct the survey and receive the responses, analyze the results and draw conclusions based on your analysis.  Computer programs such as SPSS  (recently renamed PASW) and Minitab are used for statistical analysis.  You can import the survey data into these programs which run the statistical analysis for you.  Once you have analyzed the data, it is important to look at the results for each question, one at a time and draw conclusions based on each question.  These conclusions will guide you to make the best marketing decisions for your company.

For more information about statistical analysis, check out Statistical Help.

The next time you are in need of more information regarding an important marketing decision, conducting a survey may be your answer.  Just remember to focus on the end goal, choose the best method, ask good questions, and draw conclusions from statistical analysis.  Surveys allow you to understand your target audience and guide you to make educated marketing decisions reinforced with statistical evidence.

*Population size is the group of people with the characteristics that you wish to understand.
**Resource: "How to Conduct Your Own Survey" by Pricscilla Salant and Don A. Dillman  
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