Survey Format: Creating a Winning and Effective Strategy

survey formatThere’s a lot to know when you start exploring survey writing, whether you intend to use it as a research tool or just as a supplementary, fun marketing tool for your business’ social media accounts. Before you can even start writing your survey, it’s helpful to look at what does (and doesn’t!) make a good survey, but that’s only part of the equation. The other part is the survey format; not just the “what” of the survey, but the “how”.  A good survey format will keep your respondents interested and dedicated to the entire survey until the end, especially if you are conducting the survey as part of a larger online market research initiative, using web forms to conduct the questionnaire.

Knowing the tricks and tips on how to format your survey correctly will help you get more responses, which will give you the data you need to make a clear analysis. You can consider this your all-in-one survey format style guide, and feel free to tweak it however you may need to in order to suit your own research needs.

We will begin with the overall aesthetics of a survey’s format before moving on to the specific formats of typical survey questions complete with an example for each.

Visual

Like any piece of literature, your survey should meet a number of aesthetic needs. Consider how you want your survey to look, especially if it will be paper based. This includes having a clear, readable font, pleasant use of white space and block text, clearly demarcated answer space, and whether or not you will include your company’s logo. Understanding some basic aesthetic design fundamentals will ensure that you are delivering a crisp, clean survey.

Language

Use language that meets the needs of your respondents. Obviously, a questionnaire that seeks to obtain data from medical residents on laparoscopic technology is going to have different language than a questionnaire that is aimed toward consumer issues or brand preference from the average customer. Consider your respondent base, and make it your goal to speak their language. If the language is too dense, you’ll get glazed over eyes. If it’s too elementary, you run the risk of not having your survey being taken seriously. Know your target research group, and use your knowledge of writing fundamentals to achieve a language that is tailored to that group.

Title and Objective

The title of your survey is important–it lets people know what they are getting into, and gets them invested in the survey because they know what their answers will be used for. Additionally, always include a concise objective. Your survey is not top secret, after all! Don’t be afraid to get specific with your objective when you are working with your survey format. After all, the objective of most surveys is to use the data obtained from them to better meet a client or consumer’s needs, so there’s no need to hide that. When a respondent knows that their responses will be used to improve something, they are more likely to invest in the entire process.

Directions

When you are considering your survey format, be sure to include clear directions for your respondents to follow, and insure that the directions fit with the overall aesthetics of your survey. Consider making a bulleted list of clear directions or otherwise break the text up so that your respondents aren’t looking at a wall of words. If you aren’t using a paper based format for your survey, choosing instead to host it online, consider making a few pages of one or two directional lines to break the text up.

Ordering Questions

Think of your survey as a perfect opportunity for you to “interview” your customers. How you order the questions in your questionnaire is as important as what the questions contain. Sometimes a respondent will attempt to offset a negative answer with a positive one, even if that means that they’re “fudging it” a little. While this is well-intentioned, it isn’t the result you are going for, because it will give you a false response. It’s for this reason that you want to make sure that you want to make sure that you are paying attention to the survey format and grouping questions by type and like content.

You also want to think of your survey as a funnel or a sieve. You should order your questions from broad to specific, and if necessary, allow for a respondent to skip a question and not break up the flow of the overall survey.

Now that you know a little bit about the overall aesthetics of your survey format, let’s talk for a little bit about how to format your specific survey questions. We’ll provide an example question with each of these common survey questions to give you a jumping off point when you ultimately create your own.

Checklist

You are probably already very familiar with questions that use a checklist format. This allows the respondent to choose one or more responses that best answers the question that you are asking. You may also use a multiple choice type of format, but in either case, it is very important for you to let your respondents know how many answers they may choose, whether that encompasses all of the answers that apply, or whether or not you are trying to gauge which one answer fits best. Let’s look at an example.

Q: When considering a cookie delivery company, which of the following best describes the most important criteria the company must meet (please choose two options at maximum):

__ The company must have good to excellent consumer reviews online.

__The company must meet my budget needs.

__The company must provide alternate cookie options for my dietary needs.

__The company must have a guaranteed delivery time.

Scaled Question

A scaled question allows a respondent to choose a number or even symbol-think of the FACES pain scale that you will find in any hospital-along a spectrum to provide an answer. There are a number of reasons that you might use a scaled question, but often surveys include a scaled question to either measure the frequency with which a consumer utilizes a product of service, or the level of satisfaction that a customer has with that same service. Let’s look at both here:

Q: On average how many times per YEAR would you say that you use a cookie delivery company?

0  1-2  3-4  5-6  6-7  8-10  10+

Q: How satisfied would you say you are with your MOST RECENT experience with a cookie delivery company?

Not Satisfied                                                                                       Extremely Satisfied

0            1            2            3            4            5            6            7            8            9            10

Ranked Question

When you are drafting your survey format, consider using a question that allows the respondent to rank a list of qualities, items, or other variables to determine what the consumer or client considers to be most important without discounting the other answers. Let’s take a look at what that looks like as a survey question.

Q: Please rank the following cookie flavors according to personal taste, where 1 represents your most favorite type of cookie and 5 represents your least favorite.

__ Chocolate Chip

__Oatmeal Raisin

__Snickerdoodle

__Macaroon

__Sugar

In an example such as this, you might consider including an empty line that will allow respondents to write in a choice if they do not see one that satisfies the criteria. This takes the question from being a completely fixed-response question to being somewhat open ended, which we’ll discuss in the section below.

Open Ended Question

Open ended questions are sometimes frowned upon because they interrupt the expediency with which a researcher can analyze the data they have collected, but they certainly have their place. When you allow a respondent to answer a question in their own words, you are gathering some valuable information that you simply can not achieve with a completely fixed response survey format. Let’s look at one now:

Q: In your own words, please describe what you consider to be the ideal experience when ordering cookies online.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

The thing to remember when you are drafting open-ended or non-fixed response survey questions is that you do not want to extend an invitation for the respondent to write a novel. Instead, provide a few lines to write on or a small text input box if you are distributing your survey online. Also, be sure to keep any open-ended questions restricted to the very end of the survey, and try to ensure that they don’t cover vital information–any non-fixed response question should be a little extra icing on the cake. Try not to get all of your information from these types of questions.

There is a whole lot more that can go into fleshing out the survey format that you will ultimately use, but now you have the basics you need to get going on yours. With a comprehensive survey that you can create yourself using Google spreadsheets, you will soon be on your way to collecting the information you need to creating a targeted marketing plan that can boost sales and client satisfaction!