The balance of power in relationships between brands and consumers has completely shifted. Long product development cycles and powerful mass-market advertising used to give brands all the power. Now, just about any product or feature can become a commodity, giving consumers the power to choose an abundance of options.

To meet (and exceed) consumer demands, you need deeper insights into their desires. And while you have access to more customer data than ever before, getting into the heads of consumers still proves challenging.

There are many tools and strategies you can use to gain valuable consumer insights that drive product development. Surveys, in particular, can be a valuable tool to give you the consumer insights necessary to understand and fill the needs gap between you and your customers.

At first glance, using surveys for consumer research may seem easy—you put a few questions together, collect answers, and suddenly you have the insights you needed. But in reality, there’s an art to using survey tools like SurveyMonkey, Qualtrics, Blue Enterprise Surveys, Typeform, and Checkbox.

With the right strategy, you can make the most of surveys to get inside the heads of your customers for more successful product development.

When It Makes Sense to Use Survey Tools

Without market research, you could end up wasting time and money developing new products and features that don’t actually fit customer needs. However, you can’t just start by coming up with a long list of disjointed questions to ask customers.

Before using survey tools to capture key consumer insights, bear in mind that surveys only make sense in certain circumstances:

  • If You Know Your Target Audience: Surveys can only deliver consumer insights when you know who you are targeting so you can obtain a strong, relevant sample of responses. Take the time to segment your audience and ensure that you are asking your survey questions to the right people. Look at customer product reviews to see if you can gain the input you need from there, before starting the survey process, which can take time. However if you are looking to gather information about a product that is not yet on the market, or perhaps not for long enough time, then you will not be able to get what you need from product reviews, and using a survey is logical.
  • If You Can Closely Define Your Problem and Goal: Without a clearly defined goal and problem, survey results won’t be focused enough to deliver your desired results. An example of a clearly defined problem could be “We want to know what type of handle our customers prefer on our razors, and why.” If your goal is more general, such as “why type of new feature would our customers like to see on our shaving product line,” this could be too vague to be explored in a survey. While your problem doesn’t need to be over-simplified, it should lend itself to being answered by survey results from your target audience.

These two conditions are critical in the preparation stages of survey-based market research. Once you know that using surveys is the right approach to achieve your goal, you can think about the questions that will generate powerful consumer insights.

Choosing the Right Survey Questions

Writing up questions for your survey is an art. Asking leading questions, leaving too much room for interpretation, and reverting to absolutes are all potential mistakes that will hinder consumer insights.

However, your survey tools give you so much flexibility in creating questions that it can be difficult to determine which ones will work best for your target audience.

When selecting your mix of questions, lean on the target audience research you conducted to get the most out of survey tools.

Are you surveying existing customers? In that case, you can use existing data — such from call center transcripts or product reviews — to create better questions, enhancing engagement while also generating valuable feedback about your products and services.

As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to include a variety of questions—rating scales, multiple choice, rank order, closed-ended, etc. But no matter how you break down the variety of question types, make sure you include some open-ended questions.

Some consumer insights professionals will avoid open-ended questions because they seem too indirect. Analyzing responses to open-ended questions can be challenging, but without them, you risk missing out on crucial insights for your problem.

Imagine you’re researching what consumers are looking for in smartphone innovation. You might ask a rating scale question like, “how important is facial recognition for smartphones?” You’ll get a good sense for consumer sentiment around facial recognition while completely missing growing demand for a different feature, say a smartphone that folds in half.

An open-ended question can uncover a potential new feature for your product that you may never have considered, or had considered and disregarded as unimportant.

What types of open-ended questions to ask can also be influenced by the research you have done on your product reviews and other customer feedback channels.

Reaching Your Target Audience

Finding the audience to fill out your survey depends on what your goal is; if you have a direct connection with your own customers, you can ask them to complete the survey, which enhances customer engagement and gives you valuable feedback at the same time.

Using survey tools when you’re looking to launch a new product in a new market can be more difficult. In these cases, you might work with a market research firm to leverage their consumer panels for survey responses.

But working with a firm like Westat, IRI, or Nielsen has its advantages and disadvantages for reaching your target audience. The benefit is that you don’t have to collect your own list of relevant consumers within an unknown target audience. However, market research firms are incentivized to generate answers to your surveys, making the accuracy of results unclear.

Analyzing Your Survey Results

Whichever path you choose to generate consumer insights, your results depend on the ability to balance well-crafted questions with proper audience targeting. And once you’ve collected all of the answers, you need to take the right approach to analytics to get in the heads of your customers.

The day after you’ve finished the collection process and it’s time to analyze results, you should:

  • Create a structured plan for how you’ll analyze all the different types of questions in the survey
  • Decide whether you want to manually track keywords from open-ended questions or apply various text analytics tools to analyze them

If you do not have access to (or do not know how to use) text analytics tools, often simply hiring several students to review the open-ended questions can be helpful.

Avoiding Key Pitfalls When Using Survey Tools

Surveys are great tools for market research if you’ve followed the proper steps for preparation, design, and analytics. However, as you follow the process, there are a number of pitfalls you’ll need to avoid if you want to generate the consumer insights you need.

There’s an art and science to achieving strong results and generating the consumer insights you need. Here are some of the key pitfalls to watch out for when using survey tools, including:

  • Distributing the survey before testing its effectiveness
  • Forgetting to include a question that’s critical to survey results
  • Choosing the wrong target audience for your needs
  • Designing a survey so long that responses become less accurate toward the end
  • Over-surveying your audience to the point they stop responding
  • Writing biased questions that don’t provide the insights needed

By avoiding these pitfalls and successfully using survey tools, you can make progress on understanding consumers. But survey tools are far from perfect. There are times when you can’t afford such a drawn-out consumer research process with potential for misinterpretation, or you need a much larger sample of responses than you can get with a survey.

That’s why self-service, automated consumer insights solutions are so valuable. If you want to learn more about getting in the heads of your customers, download our free white paper, 3 Signs You Need a Self-Service Consumer Insights Solution.

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