Most entrepreneurs can look back and pinpoint a game-changing moment when they questioned something—the status quo of a given market, their career, even their own choices or everyday lives. For me, the question that changed my life was: There has to be a better way for people to discover music, right?
I have always been a big music fan and was lucky enough to land a job working at Capitol Records. I was exposed to all kinds of great music. Some of this music made it to the radio for people to discover, but most never left the Capitol Records building. This got me thinking. There was all this fantastic music being created, yet there was no way for people to discover it. Why did the traditional channels—record companies, MTV, radio stations—have to be the ultimate arbiters of the music we hear?
That question led me to start my first business, LAUNCH Media, a new way for people to discover music by using what was, at the time, a nascent technology: the personal computer. Ultimately we were successful, took the company public and eventually sold the business to Yahoo!, where it became the leading online music destination of its time.
One of the most critical lessons I’ve learned as an entrepreneur is that it’s imperative to ask questions. However, it wasn’t until my current role as CEO of SurveyMonkey did I realize how to properly ask the right questions of my customers to ensure I was getting the data I needed and could trust. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Survey Yourself First
If you’re getting ready to send a survey, you probably already have a few questions in mind for your audience. Equally important, though, are the questions you ask yourself before you send a survey. Here are some questions to ask yourself before writing a single question to ask others.
Figure out the ultimate goal of your survey, and make your objectives clear up front. Stay away from vague questions that ask if someone is “satisfied.” What do you really want to know? What decision do you need to make? Do you want to find out if your product is fun to use or if your website is functional? Solidify the end goal before you get started, and frame questions accordingly.
It seems basic, but figuring out who you want to answer your questions can make or break a survey. Most of the time, you want to get a representative sample of a relevant population. For example, if you’re a non-profit looking to increase donations from current contributors, your population consists of all current donors, and your sample will end up being those who actually answer the survey. If you’re trying to attract new donors, it gets a bit trickier. You need to think through a likely population. You’re probably looking for adults, maybe moms in a certain region of the country with 2 children or less and a household income over $70,000. Once you have this nailed down, achieving a relevant sample is a lot easier.
Determining what exactly to ask is difficult and is typically determined on a case-by-case basis. A good rule of thumb is to only ask questions that measure things you care about. The questions you ask should ultimately provide you with the information you need to measure your goal. If you can’t do something meaningful with the answer, don’t ask the question!
Once you have an idea of the questions you want to ask, you have to figure out how to generate unbiased, quality feedback. The most important thing is to keep questions simple, straightforward and concise. This will make it easy for survey takers to understand what you’re trying to ask, and it’ll make it simpler for you to analyze the results. After years of hosting and conducting surveys, SurveyMonkey has lots of advice on how to ask methodologically sound survey questions; you can find some of that here.
Depending on your sample, you need to figure out the best time to send a survey and how long to keep the survey open. Closing a survey too quickly can frustrate people and leave you with a less than representative sample. If you’re looking for younger people, you’ll want to send the survey out after work. If you’re looking for older people or retirees, send it out during the day.
Hopefully, some of the above advice will help you ask better questions. Make sure you keep asking. The answers could change everything. Happy questioning!
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