TechSoup.org The place for nonprofits, charities, and libraries

Use Online Surveys to Get the Feedback You Need

Tools and best practices for conducting web surveys

Use Online Surveys to Get the Feedback You Need 
Yann Toledano - February 01, 2011
An online survey is a powerful research tool for gaining valuable input. To get the most out of your online survey, choose the right tool and learn how to conduct surveys effectively.

What do your constituents think about your programs and services? What kinds of activities are your donors likely to fund? Should your organization initiate a new program?

Rather than resort to using telepathic powers or mind reading, an online survey is a powerful research tool that can deliver the feedback you need. Paper-based surveys are often too costly and time-consuming to administer, but online surveys make it easy for any organization to get feedback on the cheap.

Most online survey tools are hosted on the cloud, so you won't need to install anything on your computer. Simply use your web browser to access the tool's control panel, where you can easily create a survey and customize your layout.

Once you've created your survey, you can send email invitations to respondents asking them to take your survey. Or, you can post a link to the survey on your website. Another option is to embed the survey directly into your website or blog. To get the most responses, all three methods can be used in tandem.

Survey tools automatically collect and tally responses in "real time," which means you can watch the results come in as they're being submitted. Results are often organized and presented graphically using charts and tables. Most tools will even produce reports based on the survey results. You can share the results with members of your staff, and even with survey respondents.

The following are some key features to consider when choosing a survey tool:

  • Price: Unless you opt for a free tool, pricing will vary. Expect to pay weekly, monthly, quarterly, or on an annual basis; per-survey or per-response.
  • Number of surveys: Refers to the maximum number of surveys you can create.
  • Number of questions: Refers to the maximum number of questions you can ask in each survey you create.
  • Number of responses: Refers to the maximum number of people who can respond to each survey you create.
  • Customizable template: Does the tool give you the ability to change the look and feel of your survey? Some tools are more flexible than others in terms of allowing you to add or modify graphics, colors, and fonts in your survey. At the very least, choose a tool that allows you to include your own logo in the header of your survey.
  • Question piping and skip logic: While some tools offer only basic functionality, others include more powerful features such as "piping" and "skip logic." Piping is a feature in which a given response to a question gets carried over to an upcoming question. For example, if a person selected "Google" as their response to the question "What is your preferred search engine?", then with survey piping enabled, the "Google" response can be included in a follow-up question such as "How many times per week do you use Google?". Skip logic (also known as "branching") is another useful feature that enables you to control the course of the questions asked. For example, if a person responds "male" to question 4, you could have a rule that tells the survey to skip questions 5 and 6 and to proceed to question 7 next – since questions 5 and 6 don't apply to male respondents.
  • Reporting: Most tools will give you access to more reporting features (such as generating cross-tabulated reports) if you use the paid version of the tool instead of the free version. In addition to viewing the results online, you can download the data to your computer. Data exporting formats vary based on the tool and include Excel, PDF, Word, and more. Some tools enable you to create customized reports, which you can download and share with others.
  • Storage: Refers to how long – in days, weeks, or months – the survey data will be kept available for access.
  • Support: Most survey tools are easy to use, but it's good to know that support is available if you need it.

Ten Steps to Conducting an Effective Online Survey

  1. Clearly define the purpose of the survey. The first essential step to conducting an effective survey is to clearly define your objectives. What do you want to learn? For example, you might be interested in:
    • Evaluating your website's features and content (a website feedback survey)
    • Measuring the effectiveness of your programs or services (program satisfaction survey)
    • Finding out whether subscribers find your newsletter informative (newsletter satisfaction survey)
    Remember to be clear and specific when defining your objectives. If your goals aren't clear from the very beginning, your results won't be either.
  2. Determine your participants and what information you need. Once you've defined your goals, consider whom your survey will target (members, website visitors, employees, etc.) and what kind of information to collect from your participants.
  3. Develop a questionnaire. Relate each of your survey questions back to your primary objective and resist the urge to ask questions that don't contribute to your goal. Be sure to keep the survey short: It shouldn't take more than 10 minutes to complete. Keep in mind that the fewer questions you ask, the more people will participate. You can choose from several kinds of question types, including: single-choice, multiple-choice, drop-down menu questions, rating scales, and open-ended. Consider the following tips when preparing your questions:
    • Keep questions clear, concise, and to the point. Make your questions easy to understand by using simple language and avoiding jargon and acronyms.
    • Place important questions at the beginning of the survey and demographic questions (such as age, gender, location, etc.) at the end.
    • Avoid asking leading questions that suggest an answer.
    • Provide some space to tell more. Allow participants to add their own comments by including one or two open-ended questions ("Please explain…" or "Please tell us why…").
    • Start the questionnaire with a brief introduction that explains the purpose of your research, how to complete the survey, an estimate of how much time it will take, and what will happen with the results.
    • At the end of your questionnaire, be sure to thank respondents for their participation.
  4. Format your survey. Pay close attention to the way you design and order your survey questions, as this will play a key role in determining how they're interpreted by respondents. Be sure to put questions in a logical order with related questions grouped together. Make sure all response options are covered. Put your organization's logo on the survey, but limit the use of graphics as they can cause delays in downloading web pages. Choose an appropriate font and background. Using a common font such as Verdana or Arial on a standard white background will make the survey easy to read.
  5. Motivate people to participate. Consider offering participants an incentive to complete the survey in order to generate the most responses. Material goods, such as free gifts, special prize drawings, and cash are good enticements. Simply telling respondents that you'll share the results with them is another type of incentive that can be effective. Maximize survey responses by tailoring the incentive to your target group. Inform participants about the incentive in your email invitations, and also mention it in the introduction of the survey. At the end of the survey, let respondents know when they can expect to receive their reward, and make sure you deliver on this promise.
  6. Decide how to distribute the survey. Your method of distribution will depend on the type of survey you're conducting and who participates. As discussed earlier, a survey tool allows you to deploy your survey in three main ways. One way is to send an email that greets respondents and invites them to take your survey. Be sure to use a subject line that's relevant and compelling, include a URL to the survey in your message, address messages using your email's BCC (blind carbon copy) field, and make sure the "From" field contains a valid email address, otherwise the message may be regarded as spam. You can also use a tool to create a link to your survey and post it on your site. Your visitors can then click the link to access your survey. Finally, some tools will also allow you to embed the survey directly into your website for all your visitors to see. This last method of distribution allows anyone who visits your site to participate in your survey.
  7. Pre-test the survey. Before sending out the survey, pre-test it on a small group of respondents to obtain their feedback. While you can pre-test the survey on a sample of your actual respondents, your test group should ideally consist of colleagues and friends who can help you to identify such things as flawed questions and points of confusion within the survey. Use the feedback received from your test group to make the necessary revisions to the questionnaire.
  8. Launch the survey. Once you've completed all of the steps above, you're ready to conduct the survey, so go ahead and send it.
  9. Analyze the responses. Always keep in mind your objective (see Step 1) when analyzing survey responses. What are the survey results telling you? The conclusions you reach from your analysis should always relate back to your initial objective.
  10. Act on your feedback. Finally, you'll need to identify what next steps to take based on the survey results. What are some specific actions you can implement now and in the future? For example, you might discover from a website evaluation survey that most of your respondents enjoy reading your site's content. But the feedback also indicates that people have trouble reading the articles due to font size, which they pointed out is too small. In fact, this could be the main explanation as to why your visitors are spending less time reading the articles! Armed with these insights, you're now ready to act by making an informed decision to use a larger font size for all current and future articles. Doing so will make your visitors happy and improve your site's effectiveness. Remember, you're not done with your survey until you act on the results. Taking action will bring you success!

Online Survey Tool Providers

With a wide variety of survey tools available, you're bound to find one that meets your needs and budget. In fact, some plans don't cost anything.

[Editors' Note: TechSoup has partnered with FluidSurveys to bring their cloud-based survey and polling tool to nonprofits and libraries. With FluidSurveys Pro, nonprofits and libraries have a direct way to gather feedback on new and developing programs, and stay accountable to constituents. Learn more about the FluidSurveys donation program and read how TechSoup used FluidSurveys for its cloud technology survey.]

Image: Online survey, Shutterstock