Creating online surveys that work – 15 quick tips

Most of our research work involves in-depth qualitative interviews – over the telephone or in person. But when the need arises we design and implement online surveys for clients.

These can be exceptionally good value research activities, particularly if a client wants an overview of opinions among a large group of respondents within a particular target group.

There are a wide range of really useful websites giving hints and tips about different elements of online surveying, and I’ve published a sample of these at the base of this article.

But I thought it might be useful for fellow communications, PR and marketing practitioners if I listed some tips that you won’t necessarily find anywhere else.

Our surveys tend to be quite complex affairs and part of a wider body of study, so I’d recommend approaching an agency if that’s your requirement (I would say that, wouldn’t I!) However, if you are doing something fairly straightforward in-house then these may come in handy….

1. Incentivisation – we find that mixed models of incentivisation work best, in which a respondent has the chance to gain something personally (i.e. enter a prize draw) as well as raise money for a charitable cause by completing the survey.

2. Charity support – spending time considering which charity to support is a worthwhile investment; if it resonates strongly with the respondent group, it can have a really positive impact on response rates.

3. Split testing – in particular, where a target group is particularly large, it’s worth split-testing different email introduction and subject heading types as part of a pilot stage, and running with the most successful for the bulk of the campaign.

4. Pilots – running a two-stage pilot process can add significant value to a project. Typically these involve an: initial test of the survey with a friendly group of respondents (and it’s important this is neither you nor the ‘client’, as you will be too close at this stage to see errors or issues); split testing of invitation types (see above).

5. Watch out for betas – the functionality of most of the current crop of paid-for online survey tools is impressive. However, take care when using ‘beta’ test versions of sites as there is (naturally) a higher risk of glitches that could impact your campaign if you use them. Current issues with fonts in the SurveyMonkey beta email tool is a good case in point.

6. Invitations – there are lots of useful blogs about what to include in an email invitation, some of which are listed below. In crude summary:

  • Personalisation [First Name] etc
  • Thank you
  • Why you’re doing it, who for and how results will be used
  • Length of time to complete
  • Incentivisation
  • Deadline
  • Confidentiality assurances
  • Contact details

7. Subject headings – again, hints and tips abound (see below). In the end it comes down to good copyrighting skills. Brevity, relevance and an answer to the inevitable ‘what’s in it for me?’ question.

8. Invitation timings – again, it’s worth splitting invitation email dispatch between different days and times of day.

9. Reminders – in-house email management or survey software email tools will often build in reminders for you, and send only to those who haven’t completed the survey. Reminder timings should be closely related to deadlines – work backwards from the deadline when setting them, rather than forward from the dispatch time.

10. Deadlines – Beware the distant survey closure deadline, a gift to procrastinators. The vast majority of responses will be collected in the two or three days after an invitation or reminder receipt.

11. In whose name should the email be sent? The person or organisation best known to the respondent group, even if you are using an agency like us, as this will boost response rates while minimising problems with spam or junk filters.

12. Don’t spam – not only is it poor practice, it’s a waste of everybody’s time. Only send survey invites to people who have agreed to receive communications from the organisation or, if you’ve bought a list, contact the recipients through your own email client to get their consent before sending the survey invite.

13. Beware contact lists provided by online survey companies – I have yet to hear a positive story about these. (Please do get in touch if you have a different tale to tell.)

14. Watch out for public links – on one occasion a client contact accidentally posted the link to an invitation-only, incentivised online survey in a public forum. It was very quickly attacked by spam bots and it took quite a while to clean up the results. Where posting links to surveys, it’s best to publish to a closed group.

15. Place the most important questions at the front of the survey. Sometimes this may involve pushing demographic data down the running order.

Some useful links:

How do I write an effective survey introduction?

5 key messages to an online survey introduction

6 simple tips to write perfect subject lines

 

Advertisements

FE isn’t a brand – and why that matters

Earlier this month the TES published a double-page spread (and splashed the story) about a six month study of further education reputation undertaken by Richard Gillingwater, of corporate communications agency Acrue Fulton.

In the article Richard ‘says FE’s national brand needs to be rebuilt, and unveils his plan to help the sector make people sit up and take notice’ (to quote the TES blurb).

While I applaud any media taking interest in further education and recognise Richard’s impeccable credentials, the available evidence suggests that it is impossible to rebuild the further education brand. That is because further education, with one important exception, is not a brand.

It is at best a sector and most probably a system.

There are numerous, occasionally conflicting, definitions of ‘brand’. It is one of those words, as Jerry McLaughlin delicately puts it, ‘that is widely used but unevenly understood’. Where academics and practitioners tend to agree is that a brand is a product, concept or service publically distinguished from other products, concepts or services. “A brand is what a firm, institution, or collection of products and services stands for in the hearts and minds of its target audience.”[1]

Brands, as the derivation from branding-iron suggests, are commonly expressed through the medium of a brand name, a trademark, a logo.

FE is not ‘publically distinguished’. It has no recognised logo, no trademark. More importantly, all but one of its target audiences (those who work in it) are insufficiently aware of it – who it serves, its constituent parts, its ‘key facts’ for want of a better phrase – for it to qualify as a brand.

In the past decade a handful of studies examining FE’s reputation have been commissioned. They all tell pretty much the same story – like this one from 2007. If you look under the bonnet of each of those studies, the respondents typically have some understanding of further education and FE as a concept[2]. Sometimes this is deliberate, as in the case of this 2012 study of FE employees.

To my knowledge (and according to reviews of available literature like this one from Anne Parfitt at Huddersfield Uni and this paper from David Roberts at the Knowledge Partnership) there has been no audit of further education’s reputation among a general population. By that I mean parents, students, prospective students, client and non-client employers. More basically, people who don’t work in organisations involved in the delivery or receipt of further education.

No such study has been commissioned, I’d suggest, because potential investors think it would be a waste of time and money. In 2011, the Association of Colleges and polling company ICM undertook a study of college reputations among such a general public. Two thirds of respondents thought Trinity College Cambridge was an FE college, and half said that colleges are still under local authority control and not inspected by Ofsted. In those other studies among ‘stakeholder’ audiences, respondents demonstrate a higher level of awareness of colleges than they do of FE. So it follows that a general public would demonstrate an even lower level of awareness of FE than they did of colleges in 2011.

You can undertake a completely unscientific test of this proposition yourself by asking three people who aren’t an FE lecturer, manager or service provider the question: “What is further education?” If any of the answers correspond, buy yourself a drink.

None of this is meant to detract from Richard Gillingwater’s research and points about FE reputation per se. It’s just that when it comes to branding, FE never made it onto the ranch. This matters, because if Government or its agencies (for instance) want to bolster reputations they should focus on FE’s constituent parts rather than the whole. And in doing so they should recognise that a strong brand depends on a minimal level of awareness – which, by the way, is why the continued, deliberate fragmentation of the term ‘college’ through the proliferation of new forms of institution is likely to prove so corrosive in the longer-term.

 

 

 

 

[1] A quote from Luc Speisser of Landon – whose 2012 blog entry on explaining a brand I would highly recommend.

[2] Take a look, for instance, at the list of respondents on page 3 of this 2007 study, commissioned from Ipsos Mori by then head of the Learning and Skills Council Mark Haysom (who, by the way, now writes critically acclaimed novels).