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How to Create an Effective Survey

Tom Britton
Tom Britton

Follow my advice on how to get a better response rate to your email surveys.

If your inbox is anything like mine, it's littered with dozens of surveys demanding your insights on everything from your latest Amazon purchase to providing a review of a service you used 10 years ago that is just now waking up to Net Promoter Score. And if I'm right, you've probably deleted most of those requests without so much as a second glance at the subject line – much to the anguish of the product manager who painstakingly put the survey together. 

Yet, however much we despise filling out surveys, there are ways to seduce us into providing valuable feedback by capturing us at the right time, with the right subject line and a sympathetic statement.

Build a better survey system

There's nothing wrong with the marketing analytics like the Net Promoter Score metric – one simple question that gives you a sense of the health of your business at that point in time – but it doesn't give you everything.

A properly designed survey program can create a connection with your customer that few other interactions can build. Imagine being able to extract information from customers more than willing to share it, information that isn't derived from patterns of data they've subconsciously donated by visiting and interacting with your product. Imagine that information being used to perfect your current product and prioritize the next product all while enriching your customers' sense of belonging and drive toward advocacy.

Editor's note: Looking for email marketing software for your business? Fill out the questionnaire below to have our vendor partners contact you about your needs.

No more wishful thinking, finger crossing, just hoping you get enough results to be statistically significant. Following the insights below, if nothing else, will get you a long way toward having an engaged customer community.

How to measure survey success

Before jumping into the how, you need to decide what an acceptable survey response rate is and know how to compare that with the data you receive. The survey response rate is calculated by dividing the number of survey responses you receive by the number of individuals you sent the survey to and multiplying this by 100.

According to both Genroe and Survey Anyplace, a really good response rate for external emailed surveys (those sent to people outside of your company) is around 30%, while Survey Gizmo suggests that you're doing about average if you're hitting something in the region of 10 to 15% range.

As with any figure, the key to a good program is to benchmark the response rate you're achieving now and monitor how what you change alters that rate. Don't lose hope if the rate you're working with is currently well below average; just focus on improving.

How to craft an effective email

When I first started sending surveys, I would include them as part of our normal weekly newsletter and be lucky to get a response rate of 0.5%. To say this was slightly demoralizing would be an understatement. Now we're hitting above 15% consistently, and with a really good email that combines all the insights I'm about to share with you, we've even struck that magical 30% figure. [Are you in the market for email marketing software and survey services for your small business? Check out the reviews and best picks on]

Here’s what I've learned along the way – with a bit of luck, it'll give you a shortcut through some of that grunt work and set you well on the way to 30% (or more).

Sample survey question

Sending a generic survey to an untargeted list will get you very untargeted results. This is a lesson we learned the hard way, through trial, error and lots of frustration. Now, the vast majority of surveys we send are targeted to specific cohorts of our member base or emailed via third parties that allow you to filter the audience down to some very precise specifications. 

This applies to targeted digital ads as well, which could get you a decent number of survey responses if you target them correctly. While the clickthrough rate will be low, if you're paying on a cost-per-click basis this avenue can garner some decent responses on a set budget. 

What would make you more likely to want to complete a survey? 

  • Knowing how long it will take
  • Understanding why you're doing it 
  • Understanding how it will benefit you 
  • Receiving it from a named person rather than a faceless corporation
  • All of the above
  • Other 

The language to use

What you say, and how much you say – or in this case, how little – has a huge impact on survey response rates. We try and keep our survey emails to two or three sentences max, short enough that the recipient can read and digest the gist of the email at a glance.

The aim here is to give the reader a reason to trade you a few minutes of their time. 

The best way to do this is to state openly why you're sending them a survey, how it will help you and how much of their time it's likely to eat into. Remember that you're emailing a person here. Most people, if they don't dislike you and aren't too busy at that moment in time, would respond to a genuine request to briefly lend a hand to a fellow human being. (And if you can offer them a discount or a freebie to sweeten the deal, that probably can't hurt.) 

The content of your email must cover

  1. Why you're sending them the survey (targeting)
  2. What you hope to do with the results (why they should care)
  3. How long it will take / how many questions (to set the expectation)

As to the subject line, keep in mind that you are asking them for a favor, so be upfront about it. Don't try and trick them. We've had the most success with subject lines like "5 mins of your time," "A quick favor" and "Just 3 questions, I promise." Be honest and upfront instead of trying to use a clickbait-and-switch technique.

Last points on the email

You should always send the email from the person whom the survey results will impact the most. This might be your head of product, it might be your marketing manager, or it might be your CEO. 

This is the individual who will ultimately benefit from striking up the conversation and who will be the most genuinely interested in getting this feedback. Besides, you want them committed to the program and sending the email from their account throws them in at the deep end.

How to make a great survey

While some may argue that the hardest part of getting responses to a survey is getting people to start it, I disagree. Early in our surveying days we sent some great emails and got a lot of unique clicks to the surveys. Unfortunately, the survey itself was not well constructed, so the rate of people visiting the survey landing page versus those actually completing the survey was well below 10% – representing a massive missed opportunity.

We’ve learned a lot since then. For a recent survey we sent out to a segment of our network, of the 620 people that visited the survey page, 329 individuals completed the first question and an incredible 326 stuck around to complete the last. That’s a 99% completion rate from those who started the survey.

Here’s the formula we use to make sure people complete our surveys and to minimize bias from the responses.

1. First impressions

A beautifully designed survey landing page and good flow through the survey are worth an uplift in survey responses of 50 to 100%.

Luckily, you don't need to build this yourself. Sites like Typeform have built one of the most beautiful user interfaces I've ever used and, yes, I don't restrict that to just "survey user interfaces" – I mean compared to any website out there.

2. The first question

If you've not read Don't Make Me Think, I suggest adding it to your reading list, though you can gather from the title what it's about. That sentiment applies perfectly to the first question of any survey. 

If the person filling out the survey is forced to think too much to answer that first question, they’ll likely assume the full of the survey is difficult (or at least time consuming) and decide on the spot that it's not worth it. After all, lots of other people are going to complete it, right? Why should they give up their time.

This is why we start most of our surveys with a very simple, straightforward question we're confident people can answer without thinking too hard. If we've not surveyed or spoken with someone before, we'll ask things like "Do you remember how you first learned of SyndicateRoom?" Or if we know we've surveyed them before, we'll use something along the lines of "What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of [ insert relevant topic you want to discuss in the survey]."

3. Unbiased mix of open-ended and closed-ended question

The results of a survey are useless if the questions asked are biased. The main culprit in creating response bias are leading questions, leading answers and the positioning of answer options. There's a lot to go into here, so rather than repeating what someone else has already phrased exceptionally well, I'll direct you to this article

Keeping a mix of question types that you are asking – yes/no, ranking and open-ended – helps the survey flow. If all the questions are open-ended, you'll find that people lose focus and later questions garner shorter answers. If all questions are close-ended, you miss out on all the valuable underlying details. A mix is best.

4. Limited follow-up questions

You might want to include conditional questions in your survey, which appear as a follow-up only when someone gives a specified response (e.g., If someone responds with "no," the follow-up normally asks them to explain, "why not?")

You need to bear in mind that a follow-up is essentially another open-ended question – only ask them where you really need the additional insight. We tend to use a follow-on if someone ranks a score low (say a 7 or below) on a 1 to 10 scale or if they select an option we didn't think would be popular.

5. Wrapping it up with thanks and the offer to chat through their response

The last part of every survey we send includes a thank you and the option for those taking it to leave their email if they are open to chatting through their responses. If you do offer them the chance to discuss their responses, be sure to actually follow up. You'd be surprised at the warm response individuals give, even after leaving negative replies to a survey, when you get them on the phone to chat.

Send a post-survey follow-up

While the main purpose of a survey is to get feedback/insight into a certain element of your business, its secondary purpose is to build that ever-valuable sense of community. Nailing the email and the survey works for your primary purpose, but achieving the secondary is all about what you do after the survey.

A quick feedback loop to their completion of the survey will set you down the right path. Following the steps outlined below has done wonders for ongoing survey response rates.

1. Send an immediate thank you after completion.

2. Share the survey results and outline what you plan to do with the insight.

3. Remind respondents that it was their input that sparked this development.

This gives people both the instant gratification desired for taking the survey and shows them that their views are actually being put to use – i.e., that the surveys are not a waste of time. This virtuous circle helps your audience feel valued and more inclined to respond to future requests.

Making surveys a habit

The beauty in the process above is that, if done right, your audience will change from detesting the thought of taking a survey, to appreciating the chance to have their say on the direction your product/service is going. 

Excluding the Net Promoter Score, we send out a couple of surveys a month to ask for input on things we're considering implementing. Each time, I know that by sending a carefully crafted, carefully targeted survey, we will get a sufficient enough response to be confident in the decisions we are making.

Image Credit: 1000 Photography/Shutterstock
Tom Britton
Tom Britton Member
Ex Athelete turned Techie, now Entrepreneur and Investor as Co-founder at I write about raising finance from Business Angels, Venture Capitalists, and Crowdfunding. I also write about what it takes to scale-up a business, though this side of things is very much a work in progress as it is the experience I am presently going through.