Survey Says!

Most site owners would love the opportunity to pick their users' brains. Why? To find out what they like and dislike about the site, the content, the colors, the layout—you name it. What about clickstream analysis? Doesn't it give you this information? Well, some of it. But it doesn't give you fingers tapping on the keyboard, and getting information straight from the horse's mouth never hurt anyone.

Welcome to the online world of polls and surveys. Many content managers miss the fundamental interactivity of the Web by not using them. Using interactive features—like a poll or quiz—offers your readers an opportunity to become more engaged in your content. Using a survey to gather feedback about your content provides cost-effective data to help make modifications or plot the appropriate course of action.

Polls and surveys used to mean pesky phone callers at dinnertime. With the advent of the Web, we now think of CNN's QuickVote located smack on the front page, or an exit survey after shopping at a favorite Web site.

Polls and surveys have been incorporated into all types of sites and online areas—news, entertainment, live Webcasts, training, elearning centers, just to name a few. Their purposes range from entertainment and increased interaction at the site to core business reasons, such as gauging customer satisfaction, getting site feedback, or gathering demographic information about their audiences.

The Web has allowed us to take traditional market research and turn it on its ear. Surveys and polls can be conducted faster and cheaper than with telephone and mail. But if you are running a Web site, should you care about polls and surveys? Do you know the difference between the two in Web-speak?

What's the difference? Can't the terms poll and survey be used interchangeably? Both are valuable, but on the Web they're considered two very different beasts.

A Web poll is typically a single question with multiple values for the user to select in order to register their preference or belief. A familiar question that we've all seen in the news is the approval rating of the president conducted by the Gallup Organization: do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president? Viewers are given "approve" or "disapprove" as answer choices. The results make headline news.

The Web is different. For an organization like Gallup, the polling or inquiry of public opinion is conducted by interviewing a random sample of people. On the Web, the "sample" or people taking the poll isn't random, but self-selected. Does this make polling on your site useless? Absolutely not! Polls on the Web are a great interactive feature and a source of content in their own right.

Providing the opportunity for readers to agree or disagree or by casting a vote or opinion on an article or current event brings them together at the site. Polls can build a following around a columnist or section at a site. They can also act as a medium to direct users to another destination on a site.

CNN is an excellent example of using polling in content. CNN's QuickVote feature allows users to vote on an issue, and then shows the results in a pop-up window along with links to "related" articles on the site. Other possibilities might include directing the user to a discussion about the issue. Anytime you engage your users is positive.

Polls should also be considered as a vehicle for attracting users to your site. Sites associated with television events use polls as a feature to get television viewers from the couch to the computer by asking them to vote online. MTV asked users to cast their vote for favorite artist, video, and the like during the MTV Music Awards, attracting millions of viewers to vote online. CNN's weekday show Talkback Live incorporates the use of polling as a key feature bringing Web and television audiences together.

While you may not have a television show, polling can still be a simple and effective way to get the pulse of your audience, engage them in your content, interact with each other, and direct them to other areas of your site.

Unlike polling, where one question is asked, the Web survey is a series of questions. The aggregate of answers by each respondent is as important as each question's answer. While the poll is a more interactive feature for engaging the user, the survey is more like a research tool and an organized way of soliciting feedback. By definition, a survey is a gathering of sample data or opinions considered to be representative of a whole. Surveys can provide in-depth information for both yourself and your advertisers, sponsors, or business partners. Supplementing survey information with demographic information about your audience enhances the value of the information.

Sites are using surveys as a way to gain feedback on user experience—such as customer satisfaction surveys. Businesses are increasingly using surveys of customers and prospective customers on products and services as a means of soliciting comments and suggestions on ways to improve their products and services, or to change marketing messages.

Polls and surveys provide an inexpensive way to gather opinions and guidance from an audience. However, it is important to remember the very limited statistical significance of the data gathered. Your business should not rely on the information as the truth or a replacement for traditional market research. It's a complementary manner of gaining a quick snapshot of the audience that has elected to visit your site.

SIDEBAR: Feedback from the Community - Cisco Systems
In an online community where opinions are expressed on a regular basis, one may ask what good a poll or survey would be. That's where Gil Ben-Dov of Cisco Systems eCommunities IT group comes in. The eCommunities IT group knows the importance of interactivity to increase knowledge exchange and business-making capabilities. They are responsible for providing a variety of online community technologies, such as message boards, polls and surveys to departments within the company. The tools are used in internal communities, such as various departments or business functions, and with external communities, such as the Networking Professionals Connection and the Internet Business Solutions Connection. Both focus on providing an interactive environment for existing customers and prospects to collaborate with one another and Cisco.

Cisco's eCommunities IT group is responsible for enabling these interactions and is an avid user of polls and surveys within the communities as an interactive feature and the source of a quick pulse of the community membership.

"We can use polls to get short mouse bites of information that allow us to gain insight and make changes when necessary," states Ben-Dov. At Cisco, the use of polls is more widespread than surveys. To a larger extent, knowing the best way to approach the audience, in this case community members, is key. Part of Cisco's eCommunities success with polls and surveys has been knowing their audience and understanding their business needs. Community users typically won't complete long surveys, and a 1-3% response isn't that helpful. The length, placement, and timing of surveys have been critical to actually gaining a useful response rate. Ben-Dov has found that within the community space, response rate is inversely proportional to the length of the survey. However, a quick poll requires less time investment from a user and can help gain instant insight from the target community audience. Opinions can range in topics, from the future of wireless communications to more categorical information, such as the most recent Cisco certification received. Within internal Cisco communities, polls can gather quick feedback from how often employees access the online community environments to how relevant a new piece of content is. As Ben-Dov points out, "keep it simple."

Innovation and Integration
Cisco has found innovative ways of including polls and survey elements with content, not only for gathering data, but for reinforcing the content. In one instance, a white paper from Cisco's research agenda was followed by a survey where readers were asked questions about the paper. After each question, the correct response with additional information was provided to reinforce what the individual had read. This was a creative and almost entertaining way of reinforcing the learning process. Feedback and results from these surveys can also be used to identify areas of opportunity for improvement in content gaps.

While the benefits of gathering audience feedback may be pretty straightforward, Ben-Dov regards polls and surveys as an "interactive feature, giving us one more facet of engaging the community, learning about them, and talking to them through a non-traditional community tool. The polls and surveys are designed to gain insight in a much less threatening—and potentially cost-effective—manner than traditional market research methods, such as a pollster calling." Gaining a snapshot perspective of the community is valuable to the various internal teams at Cisco allowing them to have additional information when making decisions, such as changing a product offering or simple messaging.

The Technology
The eCommunities IT group utilizes the Cogix ViewsFlash polling and survey system. Ben-Dov says its simple, intuitive, and flexible interface allows for the creation of a poll or survey requiring no technical skills, allowing for quick implementation, and fast results.If you aren't using polls, surveys, or quizzes on your site, why not? Your excuse shouldn't be that you can't find a tool—there are plenty of them on the market. The following are vendors with impressive client lists and feature sets. You'll need a few basic features in a polling and survey system:


Polls & Surveys - Features and Vendors

If you aren't using polls, surveys, or quizzes on your site, why not? Your excuse shouldn't be that you can't find a tool—there are plenty of them on the market. The following are vendors with impressive client lists and feature sets. You'll need a few basic features in a polling and survey system:

  • Customization of question and results screens via templates
  • Support for a variety of question types, such as multiple choice, open-ended text responses (multiline and single-line text fields), multiple choice drop-down boxes, multiple choice checkboxes ("check all that apply")
  • Unlimited number of questions, responses and/or respondents per survey
  • Ability to embed survey or poll in the current page or in a separate pop-up window
  • Multipage surveys
  • Skip pattern surveys—define questions to skip if not applicable depending on the respondent's answer to previous questions
  • Specify individual questions as "required" in order for the survey to be complete or to advance to the next question
  • Random sampling of Web site visitors
  • Ability to block multiple responses per individual (stuffing the ballot box)
  • Built-in reporting tools for viewing and analyzing results, such as cross-tab analysis of two questions
  • Support for viewing results in real-time
  • Export data in industry-standard format for import into spreadsheet, database, or statistical analysis software

Cogix Corporation

Cogix ViewsFlash provides robust, secure, and scalable enterprise software with a complete set of features for survey functions, as well as polling, quizzes, ratings, and voting systems. The system includes simple, yet sophisticated, survey authoring environments for non-technical users to design, customize, and preview surveys before scheduling them for automatic publication. Results can be viewed and analyzed in real-time through the Web or exported in industry-standard formats for import into statistical analysis software. This is attractive to IT shops and OEMs looking to incorporate survey, poll, and quiz capability into existing systems, such as content management, Webcasting, and publishing software suites in addition to integration with existing authentication systems. As a Java Web application, it can be used as a component in application servers, such as WebLogic, ATG Dynamo, and WebSphere, but does not require them. Code Extensibility and SDKs allows for custom integration within existing environments. Software licenses begin at $595 for up to 5,000 votes per month.

WebSurveyor Corporation

Create your survey through the WebSurveyor Desktop software complete with built-in templates for customizing surveys before uploading to the WebSurveyor ASP hosted service. Results are downloaded from the WebSurveyor ASP to the WebSurveyor Desktop software to review through analytical tools allowing you to view and chart results. Pricing starts at $449 per survey for three months with no limit on the number of questions or responses. Additional services are available, such as survey invitation and tracking for $.05 or less per message.

Zoomerang | MarketTools, Inc.

Zoomerang, a division of MarketTools, Inc., provides a wide range of survey and survey panel management tools. Zoomerang offers two levels of a hosted survey solution. For free, members can create and deploy an unlimited number of Zoomerang-branded surveys from the template library with a limit of twenty questions per survey, a duration of ten days, and viewing of the first fifty responses online. For a $599 annual subscription, members can increase the number of questions per survey to thirty, have no time limits, export data, enjoy additional analytical tools, and track responses by the built-in email manager. The paid package allows for viewing up to 1,500 responses. Additional response viewing can also be purchased. Parent company MarketTools provides zTelligence Survey System enterprise hosting for more advanced and customizable surveys, analytical tools, and panel member management. Pricing for the zTelligence Survey System is custom based on client needs.