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E-mail surveys help marketers round out CRM strategies and evaluate progress

The relaunch of Bloomberg Businessweek last April followed a large e-mail survey sent to subscribers designed to get a sense of what they’d like to see from the magazine. Alec Casey, head of circulation at Bloomberg, says, “The edit team used the results from those surveys to help shape an awful lot of what they wanted to do in the magazine redesign.” 

Since then, Bloomberg Businessweek continues to rely on e-mail surveys to get a sense of what content is (and isn’t) successful. It also uses e-mail surveys to gain a better understanding of the magazine’s readership, as well as the kind of promotions and incentives that are most likely to attract new subscribers and renewals.

“The days of sending paper surveys in the mail are gone,” says Casey. “We find e-mail surveys a reliable gauge in terms of what might work longer term with a broader consumer audience.”

Bloomberg Businessweek is just one of many organizations that use e-mail surveys to better understand their customer and generate useful feedback on their products and services.

John Murphy, president of e-mail service provider ReachMail, says “once companies do it a few times they become regular users. That’s because they tend to find out a lot more about their customers than those who don’t use them.”

How many questions should the typical survey include?

Most experts agree that there is no right answer, but that generally the fewer questions the better for generating responses. “When we put out short surveys — like four or five questions with yes or no answers — we get two to three times the response rate we see on average,” says Alec Casey, head of circulation at Bloomberg.

But he says the media company still sends out longer surveys when they’re looking for more in-depth information. “Sometimes we leave questions open ended so people can tell us what they’re thinking.” While fewer people complete the longer surveys, those who do typically are some of Bloomberg’s most loyal customers.

Response rates for such surveys are usually better than other types of e-mail messages — by as much as 2% to 3%, says Murphy.

“The survey is not about, ‘I want to sell you something,’” he says. “It’s a chance for people to drive the conversation.” That sentiment is echoed by Casey, who says the Bloomberg Businessweek surveys typically generate a 2% to 3% response rate.

Best practices have also emerged to help marketers and e-mail service providers generate strong response rates.

San Diego-based Total Gym, which sells exercise equipment to gyms and rehabilitation clinics, has partnered with ReachMail on a number of surveys designed to help find exactly how customers use its units. Stefanie Maio, who manages event and database marketing for Total Gym, says she ensures the surveys take no more than three minutes to finish.

“If a survey is more than 5 minutes, it is not short in most people’s worlds. If they start the survey and realize they don’t have enough time, they’ll just abandon it and won’t come back,” explains Maio, who adds that the company’s surveys have ranged from five to 16 questions.

“We also try to make it simple — just buttons they have to check off rather than a lot of writing,” she says.

Murphy suggests adding a progress bar, similar to those used by e-commerce sites to track the number of steps to complete a transaction, so customers can see when they are close to completing the survey. “You should also be sure to test it so that when someone answers a question it shows significant progress,” Murphy says.

Companies like Sony also offer incentives — such as a chance to win gift cards and other sweepstakes — to help encourage survey completion. Bloomberg uses incentives for focus groups and paper-based surveys (usually a dollar), but finds that this not as necessary in these kind of incentives.

“We’re finding with e-mail that if we make it quick enough, we get great response because people want to tell us what they think,” says Casey. “We haven’t found a need for incentives.”

Maio agrees. She says that Total Gym has offered a listing on its website directory where consumers can search for locations with its equipment, but that the purpose wasn’t to drive completion.

“It was more about the gesture — a way to say ‘thank you,’” she says. “Everybody is looking for a little more help during the recession — how can I brand myself more, what can I do — so this is just something we want to do.”

And Casey says that is something marketers need to remember — that it isn’t just about the information but the relationships being formed. “Sometimes to get focused on the answers, you are building a community when you do this,” he adds.

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