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Top 6 Survey Best Practices

By John Simpson, Engagement Consultant at GovDelivery

Surveys can be a great tool to gather public feedback, project impressions or even program success stories from your key audiences. However, the structure of the survey needs to be well planned in order to increase participation and get the insights you need. Organizations can get caught in the trap of asking too much and losing the attention of respondents or asking too little and not having enough data to effectively show results. As you explore whether surveys are the right tool for your organization to gather stakeholder feedback, take a look at these six best practices that can help you plan and execute a successful survey.

1. Less is More

  • You have your audience’s attention for a short amount of time. Make it count by cutting to the chase and only asking the questions that are crucial for the results you need.
  • The longer the survey, the smaller the completion rate will be.

2. Simplify the Answers with Room for Comments

  • Fight the temptation to offer open text answer choices for every question.
  • For most questions, offer multiple choice, multiple select, or Yes/No answers. This will save your team time down the road when reporting on results and focus your audience’s attention on what exists today or what may be possible in the future.
  • If you or your team still wants to hear from respondents “in their own words,” you can add an open text field for comments at the end of each question or at the end of the survey

3. Target Your Audience

  • Design your survey for your audience. Don’t waste time over-explaining concepts your audience should already know about or asking information of your stakeholders that you already have. Put yourself in the shoes of your possible respondents and ensure you’re using their language in both the email request and the survey, rather than the technical terms your office may use internally.
  • The more targeted your audience for the survey, the higher your conversion rate will be. When sending the initial email to your audience asking for their participation, target key stakeholders first. Don’t be afraid to personally follow up with those in your audience who are high priority stakeholders or subject matter experts.

4. Test the Ask

  • Conversion rates for surveys can be low. You can help increase the number of stakeholders taking your survey by testing a number of potential levers, such as the tone in your emails, the language or phrases you use, and personalizing the benefits of taking the survey to respondents so they can more easily see what’s in it for them.
  • Test out different messages on smaller audiences, track the results to analyze what works, and use the best message combination for the larger, remaining list. Be sure that you are also calling out the expected time needed to complete the survey.

5. Develop a Clear Strategy for Your Survey Results

  • Understand how you want to slice and dice your results before finalizing your questions. If you already have historical data or profile information on your audience, examine what audience background fields you may still want to gather in the survey. If you’re sending to a new audience with no background info or your survey is anonymous, build into the survey the minimum requirements you may need to target and segment respondents’ data (profession, state, etc).
  • Ensure you have a clear idea of how you will use the data from each question and that you eliminate any questions that don’t get to the heart of what you want to measure. If they answer X instead of Y or Y instead of Z, make sure you have thought through what implications that may have for your plans after the survey.
  • Before launching your survey, get internal buy-in for using your survey results to either modify, strengthen, or revamp processes, depending on your survey’s goals and questions.

6. Share Results and Future Plans

  • While your initial outreach should explain how your audience will benefit from answering your survey, be sure you demonstrate that benefit after your survey is completed. If you told your audiences that you would be publishing or sharing the results, then do that within a timely manner. Be sure to highlight key results that your organization found interesting or that you believe speaks to a larger trend or issue, and explain to your audience how this survey will change what is being done today or the plan for the future.
  • Respect the relationship. As we stated in tip 5, make sure that you can use your respondents’ answers to have a real influence in how business is done. This will help your organization gain more than just improved engagement for your next survey; you’ll be building a trusting and reciprocal relationship between your organization and its stakeholders.

Surveys aren’t for everyone and may not necessarily be the best tool for the job. Before committing yourself to the process of setting up and gaining approval for your survey questions, ensure that you can defend to critics both the reasoning behind using a survey and how you will use and share the data from your results and analysis.

If you decide that a survey is the right tool for what your organization is hoping to accomplish, be sure to put yourself in the shoes of your possible respondents when deciding the language of your questions and the message explaining why they should take the time to complete the survey. As you dive into developing your survey, we hope these best practices will help you maximize your completion rate and extend your relationship with your stakeholders to be even more impactful.

Has your organization used surveys to engage with stakeholders? If yes, are there any tips you can share with your public sector peers? If not, what are some of the obstacles in your way?