Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

11 Tips for Doing More Successful Online Surveys

By Forrest W. Anderson—Surveys, done properly, are a great way to gather the kind of information you can use to create communications campaigns that achieve business objectives. This is because the campaigns are based on real information and insight into the target audiences surveyed rather than guesses and assumptions about them. Real information on what they care about, how best to reach them, what messages they respond to, and so forth.

These tips are for all surveys. I mention online surveys because they are so easy to use that more and more folks are doing surveys themselves. Unfortunately, the insights users get from these surveys frequently are less than they had hoped. They sometimes are even misleading because of methodological issues I will discuss.

So here are my top tips. These are the ones that have come to my mind, and I’m sure many of my research colleagues will have others. I invite them to add their comments.

  1. Understand the business context for the research. Know what business decision will be affected by the research and how.
  2. Get the research question right. Know what you really want to know and how you will use the information in decision support.
  3. Design the research correctly. People frequently think they should do a survey when they should be doing focus groups, one-on-one interviews, searching databases, or even going to the library.
  4. Select and sample the right population. Online surveys depend on e-mail addresses, so people doing this kind of research tend to survey the people they have e-mail addresses for. However, that represents what we call a convenience sample. They should be thinking about the actual target stakeholder universe and how they can get a representative sample of that universe. Consider that presidential election polls are not done online. They generally are done by telephone, and these days, getting a random sample of the U.S. population by telephone means you have to mix landline phone numbers with cell phone numbers.
  5. Write questions that do not lead respondents to answer in a specific way (bias the question).
  6. Write questions that offer the answer choices respondents would select, so they can answer honestly and appropriately. For example, I have seen rating scales used that offered only positive responses (“Did you like this class, or did you really like this class?”). In such a case you get a positive rating, but you’ve learned nothing and your results are probably misleading.
  7. Develop questionnaires with a logical flow. Flow problems can be jarring to respondents or inadvertently reveal information that biases answers to later questions.
  8. Use question formats that are easy for respondents to manage. For example, do not ask them to rank order the importance of 20 elements.
  9. Keep your questionnaires to two to three minutes, if possible. Try to focus on one topic.
  10. Use graphs and charts to present the data in a form that is easy to grasp. Online survey services and Excel offer ways to easily visualize data. But, for your audience to grasp the data it is important that you use the right chart or graph for the situation and format it to be easily understood. For example, if you ask respondents which topic they would most like to hear about, your chart should be rank ordered to show the most popular topic at one end and the least popular at the other. This way, your audience will quickly grasp what is important and what is not. In the past year or two, SurveyMonkey has made it fairly simple to choose and format different charts.
  11. Make the leap from data to insight. This goes back to our first point about understanding the business purpose behind the research. When you have the answers to your survey questions, you need to make a case for what kind of decision the data supports. But business decisions are not just about data. They are about what is best for the organization. So, making insightful recommendations requires integrating your understanding of the data with your understanding of the business context. And the broader your contextual understanding is (that is, if it goes beyond communications to finance, accounting, HR, research and development, marketing and sales, etc.) the more valuable it will be to your organization.


This article is an update of a post on Forrest Anderson’s blog.

Thanks to Netigate Community for the image.

Forrest Anderson

Forrest Anderson

Forrest W. Anderson is a 30-plus-year veteran consultant in developing message architecture and managing corporate relationships and reputations. He works with organizations that are going through a change in strategic direction and that are concerned about what will happen if they mismanage their relationships with their key stakeholders. Forrest is a founding member of the IPR's Measurement Commission and teaches Communications Research Methods in George Washington University’s Masters Program in Strategic Public Relations. He holds an MBA in marketing and management policy from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Forrest Anderson
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  1. Lou Williams

    As always, good advice, Forrest. I particularly like the way you talked about the issues of online studies.

  2. Mike Lancaster

    Nice tips! But why do you only mention Survey Monkey? How about Google Forms or even ? They are also great tools – Google Forms is a bit more complicated but free when Cooltool is really much more easier to use than Survey Monkey.

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