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5 Reasons Your Survey Was Useless

You spent an entire month working on a survey, only to find the result are nowhere near what you expected. It's not uncommon, and it's completely avoidable.

Everyone wants that juicy stat they can use to garner attention from buyers, the press, and investors to justify their existence. And one of the best ways is to simply ask your target audience about the realities of the problems they face, their ability to solve those problems and how your way of solving the problem fits into the equation.

Sounds simple enough, but it isn't. Too often, surveys go out, they come back with either lackluster or unexpected results, or simply don't jibe together to create any kind of story.

Over the last 10 years as a tech marketer, I've identified 5 reasons surveys fall flat.

1) You Didn't Start Out with the Story First

So many marketers start out with the simple premise of how great it would be to ask some deep, penetrating question of their buyers and prospects. So a survey goes out, responses are generated, and the data comes back. Even with a few great stats generated, without a way to tie them together, you're going to be left with some minor data point that will get lost in a sea of blog content, rep conversations or, worse, not used at all.

A survey needs to have a point. It needs to tell a story that people want to hear. There are a few questions you should ask when developing the story:

  • What's the Point? - A survey needs to start with that foundational truth or fact that will be the basis for everything else. If you're a company selling breath mints, it could simply be "people's have bad breath more often than they think."

  • How do you define the problem? - Since you're going to ask more than just "do you agree?", you need to define the scope of the problem and build questions around it. For example, you might ask questions like "do you regularly purchase mints or gum?" or "how often do you speak with someone with bad breath?" - all in an effort to define the problem.

  • How is the problem being addressed? - Outside of using your product, that is. This will drum up more questions that should be asked.

  • Who has the problem? - This will help define demographic questions that can be used to slice up the data once you have responses, so you can build great supporting data points.

2) You Don't Have a Purpose in Mind

So you have some survey data. What's your strategy to use it? There are a number of uses for a survey well beyond the normal "let's make an infographic" execution. You should, at a minimum, build a survey report as both a distributable asset, and the basis for all other marketing/sales assets that can be created. Here are a few ideas, along with what's going to be needed for each to succeed.

  • PR - Journalists, in essence, are looking for great stories to tell. If you want them to tell your story, it needs to be more than just a bunch of survey data points. To use a survey for PR, you need to be handing them both the storylinethey can tell (so using this becomes more an issue of simply finding the right journalist/forum) and the supporting elements (the survey data points).

  • Blog Content - Most survey reports, if done well, will educate buyers on both the reality of the challenges they are having, and the need for a solution. So your blog is the perfect place to promote the reading of the survey report. Since there's usually more than one story within a survey, write a few blog posts, tackling various angles of the survey report and then put a CTA to read the report.

  • Webinars - If you spent the time to make defining the problem a part of the story, you can probably build your case that the challenges you help solve are real and worse than your buyers think, by simply posting up a few stats and charts from the survey data. I recently hosted a webinar and took several slides the vendor had provided, and replaced them with a single slide showing data from a survey I built with them earlier in the year. It's hard for buyers to argue with statistically relevant data showing the problem is real.

  • Sales Collateral - Since we're on the topic of telling buyers the problem is worse than they think, it makes a lot of sense to take some of the survey data and build a one-page version of the report for sales to send to prospective buyers, as not all of them will read your blog or attend your webinars.

If you're going to achieve using survey data for any of the purposes above, you're going to need to ask compelling questions that tell the story you want told. Otherwise, you'll be giving our stats like "4% of people think someone's breath is bad" and no one will care or pay attention.

3) The Questions Weren't Design to Tell The Story

Imagine you're taking a survey and the questions are all over the place with no rhyme or reason to their order or what they're driving at. You'd likely drop out of the survey from boredom or frustration. The questions you build need not only help you build out the story you want to tell, but also help the respondent tell their story. And, remember, every part of the question is critical:

  • The Question - Each question should add to the overall story, peeling another layer of the story "onion" away, each answer providing more and more value. There is a vast difference and value between asking "Have you ever met someone with bad breath?" and "How often do you meet someone with bad breath".

  • The Answers - These are just as important as the questions. That last question could have answers like "frequently/occasionally/never" or "daily/weekly/monthly" and, depending on your intent, either set of answers could more valuable than the other.

  • The Order - Questions should be presented in an order that take the respondent along a path of that story so they are thinking about the same story, creating an emotional connection to a situation they've experiences, making their answers more exact and valuable.

4) Nobody Though About How the Data Might Look

The survey isn't just about how someone answered a few questions; it's about the patterns of responses, the responses of subsets of the audience, and what answers look like when you filter multiple questions to, in essence, put respondents into certain "situations". This is where you need someone that's both left and right-brained and is probably the most critical step in the process of building a survey. It's imperative that someone think about what the answers could look like, how you'd slice the data, and how you'd filter the responses to create the story you want told.

It's important to think about this in terms of both "what if the data comes back just like we thought" as well as "what if the data comes back nowhere near what was expected". By doing so, this becomes the inflection point of how far back through the first three parts of this process you need to go and rework your survey.

5) You Asked the Wrong Audience

Since you know the story you want to tell, and the kinds of answers you don't wantto see, it's critical that you target the right demographic of survey respondents. For example, one of my customers wanted to ask how IT Developer were solving the problem of troubleshooting applications. Since the point of the question was to see how the problem is solved without using a solution like the one they provide, we needed to ensure only prospects (and not customers) were asked. It wasn't about stacking the deck; they knew how customers of their product would answer, making those respondents irrelevant. So we targeted prospects only.

Choosing the right respondent demographic needs to be based on the story you're trying to tell. For example, if you were trying to find out how often someone is told by others they have bad breath, you probably don't want to target people who frequently chew gum (or you may want to ask the qualifying question "how often to you chew gum/use mints" and then keep that answer as both an interesting data point, as well as a filter for the remainder of the survey responses.

Getting it right

Surveys aren't the easiest to make successful. But with some planning, a few left and right-brained folks, and a solid purpose, it can be an exciting project with a rewarding outcome with your organization.

(If you're like most and need help, Techvangelism provides a turnkey product, called the StorySurvey. Find out more by clicking the link, contacting us, or by visiting to see examples.)

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