Would You Like to Take a Survey?

Posted: April 25, 2017

There are basically two reactions to being asked to take a survey. 50% of us cringe and look for the nearest exit – or if it’s an online request we hit ‘delete’. The other 50% of us jump into action, our curiosity aroused. Actually, I can’t support this data with social science research. But I can tell you that anticipating both types of reactions can help you build a stronger and more successful survey.

Why do we conduct surveys? It’s an easy way to find out a great deal from a great many people at a relatively low cost, and can yield critical data to help you and your organization make decisions. We can survey a population to find out more about them. The US Census is just such a survey – it not only counts the number of people in the United States, but finds out how old they are, their age and ethnicity, where they live and many more factual details. We can also survey people to find out how they feel about specific issues. The endless political polling that accompanies presidential elections is an example.

At the community level, surveys can be critical in helping us to understand our ‘customer base’ – who wants our services and why. For instance I’m currently involved in a survey of Pennsylvania beef producers. We’re collecting data on the number of cows and types of production practices, but we’re also asking for opinions: What are your greatest challenges? What topics would you like to learn more about? What’s the best way to get information to you? Another example is a business retention and expansion survey going on right now with Penn State Extension in Perry County. Teams of trained volunteers are interviewing businesses to find out about their future plans and their business needs. In each case, the survey results will help the organizations to develop a plan of action. On the one hand, beef producers will get more targeted and effective educational outreach. In the second case, the local economic development organization will develop strategies to help keep businesses thriving in the Perry County.

How do we get the people we need to respond to the surveys we develop? Remember those two types of people, and think about structuring your survey for maximum response rates:

  • Make the survey attractive and easy to read, whether on paper or on the web
  • Explain at the very beginning why you’re conducting the survey and how you’ll use the data
  • Tell the people taking your survey why they are important to you, and why their opinions matter
  • Less is better: keep your survey introduction short and sweet
  • Make sure you add a contact person – it really adds to the credibility of your survey
  • Think carefully about how long your survey is, and then let people know how much time it will take to complete it
  • Make the survey easy to complete with multiple choice options. Limit the use of open-ended questions where people have to write in a response
  • On the other hand, make sure you have at least one open-ended question so that people can share their thoughts

This blog is just the beginning of the discussion. Designing a survey is much more of a science than an art. If you’re developing a survey on your own, talk to someone with expertise in survey development to help you get started. You can find help here at Penn State Extension.

Contact Information

Judy Chambers
  • Educator, Economic and Community Development
Phone: 717-334-6271 x313