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Surveys – Here, There and Everywhere

By Sheila Wilcox

Virtually everyone asks you to take a survey—your job, restaurants, stores, schools, airports and the list goes on. It’s been reported that American adults are invited to take surveys 7 billion times a year. There have even been surveys about what people think of surveys (they’re not too crazy about them)!

Not too long ago, surveys were generally reserved for use by researchers and evaluators like us. Then, organizations of all types realized the benefits of getting large amounts of quantitative data quickly and began surveying their customers, stakeholders, employees and more. Many of these are marketing surveys—shorter surveys, asking simply about satisfaction with or use of very specific things. In contrast, evaluation surveys tend to be longer and more complex since we are interested in the impact of a program. Because we’re trying to assess deeper levels than satisfaction and use, our surveys may include more detailed and personal questions that ask information related to respondent’s background or how their attitudes or behaviors have changed.

In today’s over-surveyed world, people may click on our evaluation survey expecting a customer satisfaction survey—something they can finish in a couple minutes without needing to think too deeply about it (or possibly even profit from). That is not the mindset we want them in. It can lead to respondents quitting in the middle of the survey or feeling disgruntled afterwards and less likely to take another survey (such as that post-program survey we’re hoping they complete in a couple months).

What can we do to still get the data we need in this era of customer satisfaction surveys?

  • Stay as focused as possible – we must push ourselves (and our clients) to avoid adding more than is needed for the key evaluation outcomes.
  • Explain why we’re asking questions, particularly the more personal ones (this could even come at the end of the survey if you are worried about biasing them).
  • Emphasize how their data helps the program or organization they have been involved with keep receiving funding or improving (possibly even encourage clients to share findings with their respondents).
  • Provide accurate time estimates – don’t say it is a short 5-10 minute survey when it’s really 15-20 minutes or people won’t be mentally prepared for what we’re asking them.
  • Consider other types of data collection – can you shorten the survey and use interview follow-ups or other existing data to get the information needed?

We can’t control how many other survey requests our respondents receive, so we need to provide appropriate and accurate information about the survey we’re asking them to take.