Most savvy businesses want to know how they and their products and services are perceived by customers, stakeholders and employees.
Most can predict these perceptions with 70 to 80 per cent accuracy, but it is the magic remaining 20 to 30 per cent that makes all the difference.
This could be underestimating the impact of certain influences on your target audiences, which means precious marketing spend is being wasted. Or it could be missing a key issue among employees affecting performance, productivity and retention.
Many businesses turn to online survey software to carry out their own research and I can see the attraction. It is freely available and makes it possible for you to create your own questionnaires cost-effectively and with relative ease. But before you think about your next piece of DIY research, I’d like to give you a few things to think about.
Often, businesses turn to online surveys because they are quick, easy and cheap – but not every research question can be answered by a simple survey. If your research needs are complex, you have a small audience, or your questions are not suited to tick boxes, then you might want to consider other methods.
My first concern with online surveys is the response rate, which can be as low as 2 per cent. The people who do reply to these surveys tend to have strong opinions, negative or positive. And because the respondents are self-selecting, they may not represent your audience, and so the findings of your research may not be meaningful. Also, in-house research can never be truly anonymous, confidential or objective.
Free software is not very sophisticated when compared with the industry software used by professional researchers. I am often asked to produce reports on online data gathered by in-house surveys because the results are sometimes difficult to understand or use. Badly designed online surveys can lead to incomplete data, because participants miss out questions that they have to think about too much or don’t want to answer, or abandon questionnaires halfway through out of sheer frustration or boredom.
Some businesses over-use research, firing out an online questionnaire every time they are unsure what direction to take. This can lead to “survey fatigue”. Over-reliance on surveys can also appear to your customers and stakeholders as though you lack confidence in decision-making.
While everyone thinks they can write a questionnaire, it is actually a skill. Some rookie errors include creating leading or biased questions, asking several things in one question, or making incorrect assumptions. Sensitive topics should be tackled near the end of a survey and spontaneous perceptions should always be gathered before any prompting.
A tip is to encourage participation by offering an incentive, like entry into a prize draw. Streamline your questionnaire so it is more user-friendly – and therefore more likely that the respondent will complete it.
There is definitely a time and place for the DIY online survey, but for accurate and objective research that will help deliver future business activities with more success, it’s worth considering expert independent advice. Potentially, a different method such as focus groups, in-depth interviews, telephone surveys or even mystery shopping better suits your needs.
Finally, interpreting research findings and deciding what actions to take as a result is critical. We often carry out research on behalf of clients and then use this to steer recommendations for future marketing activities. One client was considering a six-figure rebrand, but saved themselves the bulk of this budget and invested it in other ways. As well as expert advice on research itself, independent guidance on what should, and importantly, should not be done with the findings is worth its weight in gold.
Sinead Assenti, research director, Perceptive Communicators