The Do's and Don'ts of Online Surveys

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Today's battle for Internet customers will be won by marketers who make the effort to learn about their customers -- and there is so much more needed in addition to having a breakdown of site-visitor demographics. To create a profitable, ongoing relationship you must understand why customers behave like they do, what they want from your company and who they consider your competition to be.

For decades, successful offline companies have looked to professional market research as the source for this mission critical information. Sure the data was costly and slow to collect, but its value far out-weighed these problems. That was then. Now enter the electronic world of Internet business. The cost of collecting customer feedback is negligible and fast.

But before you rush out and post some surveys on your Web site, heed these words of caution. Technology has revolutionized traditional market research. The one way, time-consuming surveys of the offline world are more likely to create high levels of dissatisfaction with Internet customers than they are to provide you with valuable business intelligence. The following is a list of do's and don'ts that will help keep your customer feedback efforts valid, accurate and most importantly, customer friendly.

Make your survey instructions and questions fool proof. Feedback from a visitor who didn't understand the question you asked is worthless. And when all is said and done, you'd rather be making decisions with no data than with bad data.

Ensure your sample is representative. Posting a link to a survey or summarizing e-mail feedback will gather comments from only the ultra-satisfied or ultra-dissatisfied customers. If you want to project your sample results to all site visitors you must randomly and proactively bring the survey to your visitors.

Allow the site visitor to opt out. Don't trap site visitors in a survey. If they need to quit the process before they're finished, there's probably a good reason for it. Just make sure you discard any and all less than complete responses.

Reward your site visitors. Everyone in the direct response community knows that incentives improve response rates. This couldn't be more important with your research as higher response rates mean lower nonrespondent biases. Besides, a reward will keep customers happy and primed for future interactions.

Respond to customer concerns. If a visitor says they don't like something about your site or that they need help, they expect to receive some instant gratification. Don't just say, "Thank you for your feedback. Have a great day." Respond to the concern right then and there.

Use the information you collect. Many companies are tempted to bury problems and bad comments. If you don't plan to react to your survey results, save yourself the effort and your customers the time of collecting the data.

There are several don'ts as well that you need to heed to keep your customer-feedback efforts customer friendly.

* Don't wait until the visitor has left your site to conduct the interview. The greater the time lapse between the visit and the interview, the less accurate the feedback will be. There are many unobtrusive ways to catch customers while the site experience is still fresh in their heads.

* Don't take the visitor away from your site to conduct the interview. Web surfers like to be in control of their navigation. Internet newbies will be instantly confused if you teleport them to an off-site survey. Seasoned surfers will resent you.

* Don't present your site visitors with a lengthy survey. Per eMarketer, most people will spend less than 1.26 minutes on the average Web site. Don't ask them to complete a 10 minute survey. Break your information needs into relevant chunks that can be deployed in stages.

* Don't try to force site visitor's feedback into a rigid structure. The main purpose of feedback collection efforts should be to uncover hidden problems and opportunities. Regardless of the information you're trying to collect, you should always allow for open-ended feedback so those not so obvious issues can bubble to the surface.

* Don't let the feedback you collect age. Competition, technology and marketing strategies change at lightening speed on the Internet. Computers are capable of real-time data reporting; use this to your advantage.

If executed with these simple principles in mind, gathering information from your Internet customers can become an invaluable source of ideas and key business intelligence.

Jody Dodson is director of research at CustomerPulse LLC, New York. His e-mail address is

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