Nothing Out of the Question: Using Online Surveys to Improve and Grow

The word survey comes from Middle English and originally meant “to examine and ascertain the condition of” something. But surveying land is actually a much older concept. As long as humans have built large structures—Stonehenge, pyramids—we’ve had to survey the land beforehand; we’ve had to examine what was already there before we knew what we might be able to create. 

Recently, I took an online survey. A company wanted to know what I felt about their services and what kind of needs I might have that they had not yet fulfilled. In some ways, filling in the answers felt like a quotidian and mundane task. But purpose-driven organizations should think of the tool in the broadest sense: Surveys are an opportunity to do some examination that allows for greater creation.

Why are surveys important for purpose-driven organizations? “Feedback is a tool for continued learning … Continued feedback is important across the entire organization in order to remain aligned to goals, create strategies, develop products and services improvements, improve relationships, and much more. Continued learning is the key to improving,” according to Susan E. Wyse at Snap Surveys.

Knowing what your constituents think is useful to the work that your organization does now. And knowing what your potential constituents think will help you to grow.

I contacted Sheila Walsh to talk about how to put together a great survey. She’s a D.C. communications professional and founder of Imbue Digital, specializing in audience research, communications strategy, and print and digital media. I asked her how to get started.

“First, set the goals of the survey, and do give yourself a reality check that the survey can accomplish those goals,” says Walsh. “Then decide who you need and what information you need to survey in order to attain your goals. Pick an appropriate sample size. Consider adding a trap question if you think some participants might rush through the survey in order to get a cash reward.”

When writing your survey, use the right tone. Use positive, action-focused language and make it easy for participants to complete your survey. “Your volunteers and donors are already contributing time and money to your cause. Make sure the language and tone you use in your nonprofit survey expresses appreciation and gratitude,” according to Survey Monkey. “Keep it brief. Focus on one subject for your survey, for instance, a recent fundraising event or the volunteering experience. Packing a lot of questions into a single survey is a sure way to encourage survey abandonment.”

What are the big no-nos? “Surveys are good for some things but not so good for others,” says Walsh. “For example, if you want to know if your website is easy to use, a usability test is better. But if you want to know how your constituents would prefer to communicate with your organization—social media vs. e-newsletters, for example, then a survey would work. Don't phrase questions in a leading way.”

Walsh suggests this article at Survey Monkey as a good resource for writing questions. The article emphasizes using neutral language because a survey is best when it captures the respondents’ true feelings, instead of what respondents think the survey writer wants to hear.

Walsh shared a best practice for analysis of data collected via survey. “Think of survey data as an insight that tells part, but not all, of a story. The participants reflect part of the audience; not everyone will fill out surveys. Make sure you get other types of data to augment the survey findings. This might include individual interviews, website analytics, focus groups, and/or research reports from PEW, Hitwise, and other companies/organizations that take a big picture view of societal trends,” says Walsh.

Once you’ve written your survey, how do you get people to fill it out?

To encourage people to participate in a survey, provide an explanation for it. “Give your participants a brief summary of the questionnaire and why their responses are helpful and appreciated,” suggests Survey Monkey.

“An incentive to entice people to give up their time can be helpful, according to Optimal Workshop. “This incentive doesn't need to be large (or monetary) but it will need to be attractive to your desired audience … Sometimes simply appealing to people's good nature is enough, especially if you have an active community who values what you do and would benefit from you doing it better. Other times you'll want to offer good-as-cash-vouchers or a chance to win the latest device.”

“Honoraria such as Amazon gift cards are always best, and make sure set expectations regarding when participants will receive the gift card. And make sure you have the staffing to fulfill them,” says Walsh.

Getting a lay of the land before you start to build is important, as the ancients knew. An online survey is a relatively inexpensive and effective way to get the lay of the land.