The Survey Engagement Dividend

Engaging with your products, people and places

Wouldn’t you love to know how you customers, clients, constituents or colleagues think about an issue of importance so that you can use their position to help inform design of your services or validate the choices already made?

For those looking for this kind of data they are probably thinking of using a survey of some sort. You know the survey, it’s something that you’ve probably been invited to complete at least once in the last week (maybe the last hour); and that is part of the problem.

Use an app for more than a few times and you’ll likely get a question about whether you like it and whether you will rate it on the iTunes Store or Google Play. Rent a car, stay at a hotel, take a plane/train/bus trip, buy something online, visit an attraction, or even visit a health centre and there is a very good chance that, if someone connected to that transaction has your contact information, you will be asked for your opinion and to rate the experience. Polling, or the use of surveys to determine voter preferences or public opinion on a variety of issues, is used to illustrate the ‘mood of the public’ and guide political decision making.

In a commentary in the New York Times, professor of public policy Jeff Zukan describes the situation as dire for those seeking to make political decisions based on current polling data.

Evaluation research (pdf) continues to point to an overall decline in response rates over time although recent research from Japan suggests that valid response data can still be obtained from small response rates, but that it remains sub-optimal.

In short: it’s getting harder to get responses to a survey and that is casting doubt on the validity of the data that is being generated.

Going from passive surveys to active engagement

Part of the problem is the sheer volume of surveys being deployed in the world. There was a time when a survey was a unique thing to encounter, something done through the census or perhaps through the decision to participate in a research study at a university or hospital. Research was also done by trained professionals for professional purposes that were made obvious to the respondent (e.g., contributing to scientific knowledge). Now that has shifted to include a panoply of reasons from guiding product marketing to quality improvement to scientific research and often to no obvious destination by people who know little about the scientific basis for survey methods.

Easy to deploy survey creation tools such as Google Forms or through Facebook or even Twitter allow anyone to develop and distribute a survey to a nearly unlimited number of people.

But just because you can survey doesn’t mean you should or that it is worthwhile. Here are some tips to increase the utility of your surveys, get better data and better response rates while doing more for your organization at the same time:

  1. Engage your community/clients/potential respondents early. We worked with the folks at Eat Right Ontario to see how to improve the feedback process on new health promotion materials using surveys and we found that the organization’s Facebook group was a place where people had already self-selected as being interested in the subject matter. In a study published earlier this year, we demonstrated that we could get data of similar quality, quantity and utility drawing on this engaged population than we could if using a personalized, face-to-face approach (which is often the gold-standard for recruitment).
  2. Make it simple and to the point. Ask questions that are clear, direct and to the point. Make the survey clearly relevant to the participants. If you are asking questions about some underlying hypothesis that doesn’t seem obvious to the participants, they will see less relevance in it and will be less likely to complete the survey. You have a limited amount of attention time; use it wisely
  3. Ask only what you can use. Related to the previous point, there is a tendency to think that because you’re doing a survey that you need to ask certain questions like demographics for example. However, if you have no perceived need for the data, don’t ask. Sure, you might find a reason down the road, but if you can’t think of one now it’s less likely you’ll need this information. For example, we designed a survey for a client looking to get feedback on their network and advised against any demographic data because there was no obvious need for it on their part because no matter what the responses were they were not in a position to use it for anything. Thus, asking things like age, gender or location didn’t matter and would only put people off as it makes data that was meant to be impersonal and anonymous more personal and more risky.
  4. Tell them the story of the data when you’re finished. Share what you learn so that your participants can learn with you. Giving back the data invites engagement, creates transparency, and fosters accountability. Many reasons people disengage from surveys is that they believe the data isn’t going to be used. By not only showing the data, but also what you learned from it and did with it, you create a trust for future participants to engage with you on future projects.

These four tips can help you get people interested in your survey and increase the likelihood that they will respond to the questions you ask. After all, that is the reason you want to do a survey in the first place.

If you need support developing data collection strategies for your organization, contact us and we’d be happy to discuss survey development or many other methods that can help you get the right information at the right time.

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