Marketing Research Surveys: A Good Idea—but Not So Fast


A quantitative survey—if done well—can be a powerful tool for arming yourself with valuable marketing information. An alumni survey is an ideal place to start, and you can gain important insights from other constituent groups, too. Your survey pool may vary depending on the kind of input you’re seeking, but the principles of good surveys are the same. Start with a solid plan.

Sound design, process, and analysis—These are crucial for effective outcomes in any kind of marketing research. First, consider why you’re doing a survey—what do you want to know? As you’re preparing your questions, keep in mind that what you’re asking and how you’re asking will affect the quality of the responses you receive. Secondly, who you’re asking matters—is your survey group truly representative of the population you want represented? Finally, how you interpret the results is critical—if your analysis is off-base, your research is for naught, or maybe even harmful.

If you don’t have an in-house marketing research specialist, we’re sharing some principles here to keep you on track.


In keeping with your stated goal of why you’re surveying a particular group, be sure you’re asking the right questions and asking them in a way that will garner the kind of information you need. As you’re writing the questions, think about the range of potential answers. Plan with the end in mind. Would those responses fill in the information gaps you’re looking to fill? For example, if you want to know how effectively the school is fulfilling the vision communicated by your tagline, ask specific questions about the outcome of the person’s experience with your school.

Then, there’s an art even to the way questions are worded and how categorical responses are defined.

Compare these questions:

Did your experience at ABC university live up to the tagline xyz? (yes or no)


How well did your experience at ABC university live up to the tagline xyz? (rate on a scale of 1 to 5)

The first question forces the respondent into one of two boxes, when likely he or she is somewhere in between. Version two allows for a range of responses.

Open-ended questions are a great way to add depth and uncover underlying attitudes and perceptions, but you’ll want to limit the number of these because of the complexities of drawing measurable conclusions.


Gone are the days of phone banks dialing the landlines of constituents sitting at home. Since almost all of your constituents are on the move and living online to varying degrees, electronic surveys are your most reliable method of collecting data. Be sure you have a valid, updated list that broadly represents whatever constituent segment you’re surveying and that this list is large enough to draw a statistically valid sample. A simple tool like this one from Survey Monkey can be a lifesaver if you don’t have a PhD in statistics!

To increase participation, assure your targeted participants that results will be kept confidential. There may be cases where you want to follow up with a respondent (such as using a quote for marketing materials)—if so, disclose these details upfront, assuring them you will not use their comments without their permission. If it’s more important, though, to get candid, unguarded feedback, consider making the survey anonymous (be sure you’ve correctly coded it this way). In all cases, make the survey simple, and let participants know from the beginning that this will take a minimal amount of time. In your appeal, you may want to lead with something like, “Will you help better the future of XYZ University by completing this four-minute survey?”


When someone who is skilled in survey analysis digs beneath the basic tallies, you can uncover layers of valuable information. You can evaluate, for example, the depth of satisfaction (or lack of it), or you can glean information about specific segments of your population. Online survey systems will produce a report with slick graphics, but that’s typically surface-level data.

By investing time and skill in more robust analysis, you may discover a gold mine of information. For example, by categorizing open-ended responses, you can identify strong trends in opinions and evaluate if particular ideas are representative of the larger group. By studying the percentages of responses on a scale, you can better evaluate the intensity of opinions expressed. You can also identify the distance between ranked items, rather than just a cursory look at the top few items.

A careful evaluation of the data should lead you to measurable results that point to application—so it’s critical that the analyst understands the underlying purposes and context for the data. The numbers are only as powerful as how you can use them!

If this seems a little overwhelming, 5° is here to keep it simple for you.

If you’re considering a survey, let’s talk through your plan and see how we can help.

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