Good Survey Questions: Master the Art of the Ask

Good Survey Questions: Master the Art of the Ask

“Surveys are the most dangerous research tool,” says Erika Hall, author of Just Enough Research. “If you write bad survey questions, you get bad data at scale with no chance of recovery.”

As attention spans get shorter, there’s growing pressure to make surveys lean. More and more people take surveys on their phones, and if the survey is too long, they drop out.

How can we make the survey short and still get the information we need? By writing better questions. This post separates the good questions from the bad—and shows you exactly how to write them for every survey scenario.

Why run surveys?

Surveys help you answer business questions. It’s that simple.

Of course, the higher quality questions you ask, the better answers you tend to get. And in the context of digital marketing (and, in particular, conversion optimization), asking the wrong questions can lead you down the wrong path.

Therefore, it helps to spend a bit more time on question development. Einstein agrees:

So does David F. Harris: “If we make questions clear, answerable, easy and unbiased, we can reduce the survey length, improve the respondent experience, completion rates and the quality of data.”

Better questions aren’t just about getting better data for better decisions, either. Surveys affect your company’s reputation.

How would people describe your surveys?

  • “This is the kind of survey I really enjoy… the best survey I have completed in the last year.”
  • “I took this survey from company X, and it was horrible! I got so annoyed, I just quit.”

All the more reason to take writing customer surveys more seriously.

Several factors should influence your choice of questions and wording.

Good survey questions for 7 types of surveys

There are no universal guidelines for good survey questions. The right question depends on several things, including:

  • Your research goals. What you hope to learn.
  • Your company and customers. Surveys need to be on brand and relevant.

The type of survey matters, too—are you asking first-time visitors about your content? Long-time customers about your service? A group of user testers about the checkout flow?

Here are seven common types of surveys and the best questions to ask in every situation.

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1. Good survey questions for current customers

Surveying your customer base can help clarify personas, pinpoint new personas, identify stumbling blocks in the user experience, inform product and content decisions, inspire marketing messaging, and the list goes on.

You can get valuable insights by asking these questions:

  • What can you tell us about yourself? This question can also be framed as, “In one sentence, describe yourself.”
  • What are you using [the product] for? What problem does it solve for you?
  • How is your life better thanks to [the product]?
  • What made you buy [the product]? What convinced you that it was a good decision?
  • What doubts or hesitations did you have before buying?
  • What questions did you have that you couldn’t find answers to?
  • Did you consider alternatives? How many websites did you visit before buying from us? Which ones?
  • What was your biggest challenge, frustration, or problem during your visit to our website?
  • Anything else you would like to tell us?

David Darmanin from HotJar has analyzed hundreds of user surveys and zeroed in on some of the most insightful questions you can ask current customers:

  • Where exactly did you hear about us?
  • How would you describe us to a friend?
  • What would you miss the most if you could not use us anymore?
  • What’s the one big thing we’re missing?
  • What are your biggest everyday challenges?

All of these questions are open ended, which is tricky. Most people don’t like to write paragraph after paragraph. If you want to ask more than five questions, add an incentive, like an Amazon gift card or a chance to win a valuable prize (HotJar was giving out an iPad).

Mix closed-ended and open-ended questions

Tamara Mendelsohn, VP and General Manager of Consumer at Eventbrite, has successfully run surveys containing a mix of open-ended and closed-ended questions. At True University 2015, she presented her strategy, consisting of the following questions:

  • How do you feel about Eventbrite?
    • I love it and would recommend it to a friend.
    • The app suits my needs, but I’m open to other solutions.
    • I’m really dissatisfied with the product. .
  • What originally prompted you to use the app? (Include a list of value proposition items and have them choose all that apply.)
  • After using Eventbrite, what is the greatest value you are getting from it?
  • What words do you think represent Eventbrite?

The responses Tamara and her team received helped crystallize the brand identity and value proposition.

How to get better answers

If you’re feeling innovative, try the “Love/Break-up Letter” technique.

Ask respondents to imagine that your product were a person and to write either a love letter or a break-up letter to that “person.” This technique strips away all the armor and makes for genuine and emotionally colorful responses.

To get more in-depth answers, Talia Wolf from GetUplift suggests adding personal questions to your surveys that offer a window into the customer’s emotional triggers and intent. For instance:

  • What is the biggest challenge you’re facing right now? (Best for B2B)
  • Where do you see yourself in three years?
  • If [company name] were a person, what kind of person would they be? How would you describe them?
  • Who is your role model?

According to Talia, the last question in particular helped her client achieve a 62% boost in sales.

Here’s the story:

talia

Talia Wolf:

“While working with an ecommerce site, we sent out a survey including the question, ‘Who is your role model?’ and received extremely interesting responses.

Over 90% of respondents claimed their role model was a close family member, while the vast majority said it was a parent.

Using this insight, we crafted our message, chose an image strategy, planed our social proof strategy, and chose our color scheme to highlight family values above all and to create a sense of a close community. This change in strategy increased purchases by 62%.”

The first step Liston Witherill from GoodFunnel takes when coming up with effective survey questions is contemplating the specific question he’s attempting to answer. He holds that question as his North Star. Next, he found that focusing on behavioral drivers yields rich material.

liston

Liston Witherill:

“The questions that we find the most helpful usually have to do with motivation. So a question like ‘What are you hoping the [product/service] will do for you?’ or ‘What happened that made you look for [product/service]?’

As much as you may think you know your customers, you’ll be quite surprised by the variety of answers you get.”

Sometimes, asking the right follow-up questions can make a huge difference in the outcome of the survey.

Sean Campbell, CEO of Cascade Insights, has a story to prove it:

sean

Sean Campbell:

“During a recent study, we surveyed our client’s current customer base and uncovered that while 92% of the market segment we were targeting was satisfied with their current solution, 40% expressed the likelihood they would switch providers in the upcoming year.

If we had merely stopped at the first question, the client would have been left with the belief that keeping current clients wasn’t going to be a challenge. But that obviously wasn’t the case.”

How to ask the customer to participate in a survey

For the best response rates, frame the survey request as a personal favor. Alex Turnbull, CEO of Groove, has nailed the “art of the ask.” The template below is based on Alex’s outreach messages:

At [company], there is nothing that keeps us up at night more than thinking about how we can make a better product for you.

But one of the most important lessons we’ve learned over the years is that what WE think is best for the product doesn’t really matter. What matters most is the challenges our customers – that’s you – are facing, and how we can better solve them.

We want [product] to be as useful and easy to use as it can possibly be.

We want it to be the best [category] product on the planet. Will you help us do that?

Just click here right now, and answer a few quick questions.

It won’t take you more than … minutes.

I—and the entire [company] team—would really, really appreciate it.

This request is so personal—it’s hard to ignore.

Getting ideal (but prospective) customers to take your survey

With the right approach, it’s possible to get your prospective customers to participate in a survey, even if they’ve never engaged with you before.

Alyssa Ackerman from EverThere has sends “cold” survey invites. The response rate she gets is surprisingly high. How does she manage to get complete strangers to take her survey? By being respectful and genuine. Here is her magic “cold” outreach template:

Hi [Name], I found your profile on LinkedIn and wondered if you’d be interested in participating with a research study I’m running geared towards [their field of expertise].

It will take less than 10 minutes of your time and comes in the form of a survey. Let me know!

Thanks,
[your name]

If they agree to participate, follow up with:

Hey [Name], thanks for connecting.

I wondered if as a [their field of expertise] you have you ever [done something your product is helping with].

If so I’d love your input on a research study I’m running. It will take less than 10 minutes and you can find the survey here: [link]. The goal of the research is to improve [their experience] and push innovation in the space.

Please let me know if you have any questions. I really appreciate any time you can offer this effort.

This kind of outreach has a fortunate secondary effect—after participating in the survey, prospective customers actually become interested in the service Alyssa’s company is offering. A win all across the board!

2. Good survey questions for engaged prospects

Rand Fishkin has an interesting approach to conversion. Here’s what he said in a podcast with Alex Harris: “We don’t want to convert too fast! I want them to become part of the community, I want them to get educated, I want them to have a great experience with Moz.”

Rand has found that this strategy maximizes customer lifetime value in the long run. After the potential customer has been engaged for a while (reading the blog, participating in free webinars), Rand sends them a probing survey asking:

Have you considered becoming a customer? What is stopping you?

The answers help make the pre-conversion onboarding experience better and ultimately create loyal customers.

3. Good survey questions for recent converters

The customer has just bought from you, and there’s positive momentum. You can use this time to refine your value proposition and discover new areas you can fix.

For B2B, a post-conversion survey could be part of an onboarding email. I like how Groove’s Turnbull does this:

Subject: You’re in :) PLUS, a quick question…

Hey [name],

I really appreciate you joining us at [company], and I know you’ll love it when you see how easy it is to [do the job your product was hired to do].

We built [product] to help businesses [reach a goal], and I hope that we can achieve that for you.

If you wouldn’t mind, I’d love it if you answered one quick question: why did you sign up for [product]?

I’m asking because knowing what made you sign up is really helpful for us in making sure that we’re delivering on what our users want. Just hit “reply” and let me know.

Thanks,
[Your name],
[Your company]

Put a survey on your “thank you” page

Brian Massey from Conversion Sciences says the thank you page survey is his favorite type, for two reasons:

  1. Completion rates are high thanks to the “Liking” effect. When someone chooses you, you instantly become better in their minds, so they’re more willing to help.
  2. The question is posed to actual buyers/leads. These are people who have made it through the process successfully.

Brian found that the information he gets is rich and full of hypotheses for optimization. Here’s a story Brian shared of a thank you page survey bringing valuable insights:

brian

Brian Massey:

“One of our clients sells two versions of a product for automobiles, a Pro and Lite version. We used a thank you page survey to ask visitors why they chose the version they bought. The survey was slightly different for the Lite product thank you page and the Pro version thank you page.

We asked ‘If you don’t mind us asking, what made you choose Lite over Pro?’

Response rates were good, and the results were very helpful for refining our message and adding content. The key differentiator for this product was a 3G connection that didn’t require communicating through a phone. It became clear that we weren’t communicating the benefits of this, and addressing issues such as security.

This also helped us identify key segments of buyers to address in our copy.”

example of survey results from a thank you page.

Other questions you could ask in the thank you page survey:

  • Why did you decide to sign up/purchase from us today?
  • What almost stopped you from signing up/buying from us today?
  • What are the top three things that persuaded you to use us?
  • What are the top three things that nearly stopped you from using us?
  • What could we have done to make your decision easier?

4. Good survey questions for user testers

You’re running user tests, right? Much of the insight comes from analyzing user behavior, of course, but you can also learn a lot from doing a post-test survey.

image of a user test.

Once the participant has completed the actions on your website you outlined in your script, follow up with a few questions while their impressions are still fresh:

  • What was the worst thing about your experience?
  • Which aspects of the experience could be improved?
  • What did you like about the website?
  • What other comments do you have?

5. Good survey questions for churned customers

Clearly, a good point to gather insights is when you’ve failed. Enter churn. The more insight here, the better, as churn is a huge problem with growth. 

For this, there’s another email template from Turnbull. This email gets a nearly 14% response rate, and Alex has gotten some incredible insights from it.

Hey …

I noticed that you didn’t upgrade your account. I completely understand that [the product] isn’t the best fit for everyone, and there are no hard feelings on my end :)

But if you’re willing to answer, I have a quick question: what could we have done better to keep you as a customer?

Just hit “reply” and let me know.

Thanks! [Your name]

6. Good survey questions for site visitors

On-site surveys can provide valuable context that’s often missing from click-stream data.

Avinash Kaushik is convinced that nothing beats the Three Greatest Questions Ever:

  1. What is the purpose of your visit to our website today? It can also be framed as:
    • What is the reason for your visit today?
    • What task are you looking to accomplish on our website today?
    • Why are you here today?
  2. Were you able to complete your task today?
  3. If you were not able to complete your task, why not? It can also be framed as:
    • If you were able to not complete your task, please explain.
    • Why were you unable to complete your task on our website today?
    • How can we improve our website to ensure you are able to complete your task?

Peep Laja, founder of CXL, recommends asking these two questions on your site:

  • What is stopping you from completing your purchase today?
  • Are there any questions you’re not finding the answers to? (If they say “Yes,” ask which ones.)

Experiment to see which one gets a better response rate for you.

Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey

Well, first ask the classic question:

On a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being “Extremely likely,” how likely are you to recommend our product to a friend or a colleague?

But don’t stop there, also follow up with:

Please explain why you have chosen [number].

If you don’t ask why, the numbers aren’t as useful—there’s no clear way to act on them.

net promoter score chart.

7. Good survey questions for content strategy

On their blog, HotJar asks just one question:

What else would you like to learn about?

That’s a great way to focus your content efforts. Kissmetrics formerly asked their customers:

  • What are your most burning questions about_____?
  • What’s your preferred method of learning (reading, watching or listening)?

As a result, they could optimize both content and format.

EverThere’s Ackerman discovered what they should focus on in their content when running a completely different survey.

The survey was intended to test EverThere’s value proposition: “Qualified leads at a fraction of the price you pay for leads coming from other acquisition channels.” Did target customers understand the value of the service?

As it turned out, most marketers didn’t know their cost per lead, so the value proposition didn’t resonate. Alyssa realized that the top priority for EverThere when it came to content was educating marketers about the average lead cost of different acquisition channels and how it compared to EverThere.

Conclusion

The results of surveys can be eye-opening and explain a lot—if you ask the right questions.

If you ask the wrong questions, the wrong people, or ask them at the wrong time, you’re likely wasting your time. Your surveys are only as good as the questions you ask, and those should reflect your business goals and challenges.

Take a step back to think about the problems you want to solve, and ask the right questions to tease out some answers. Hopefully, this post gives you some inspiration for your next survey.

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Join the Conversation Add Your Comment

  1. Since I’ve also dropped from several surveys after a few questions, I thought how would I make it differently. I’ve come up with two tips to overcome the “early-exit” problem:
    a) State clearly how many questions are there up front. Don’t make people guess how many mor questions are there.
    b) make each click on the “next” button submit the answers so far. That way you won’t risk losing everything if a person decides to leave early

    Reply
  2. The conversion optimization industry sells on answers. However, when you look at the processes we use to find answers, it’s all about finding the right questions to ask. Like Einstein, we know how the find the answers.

    As tools like Hotjar and UsabilityHub.com get into the hands of more and more managers, our businesses are going to get so much better at asking questions because the answers are so easy to find with behavioral data.

    Thanks for allowing me to contribute.

    Reply

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Good Survey Questions: Master the Art of the Ask