Case Study: How an Audience Survey
Fueled Real Business Growth

image of paper survey

If you’ve been online for a while, you may have already heard of services like SurveyMonkey, Wufoo, and PopSurvey. (And if you haven’t, hop on over to those sites and check ‘em out).

Surveys can be a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of your prospects and clients.

They help you know what your audience thinks is important, what they want more of, and what motivates them to buy or change their habits.

But that isn’t the only thing surveys can do.

Did you know that surveys can also be fabulous for helping you …

  • Grow your subscription list and find new leads?
  • Create relationships with influencers and leaders in your industry?
  • Find a ton of new content and product ideas?
  • Build your social proof and authority with your audience (and Google!)?

Strange, but true!

How do I know? I just completed one of the biggest surveys of my self-employed life (and learned more than a few things in the process).

Now, thanks to Copyblogger, I get to share some of those goodies with you …

The back story (Caution: Your eyes are bigger than your stomach)

One of my big goals this year was the completion of a market research project. But not any old research. Nope.

When I say big, I mean big, hairy, and audacious enough to make your eyes water.

Big enough to break new ground. Big enough to catch the attention of thought leaders. Maybe even big enough to get on the radar of the government officials whose job it is to support and promote the growth of small businesses everywhere. (A girl can dream, right?)

And perhaps it was that statistics class I had in college. Or maybe it was just hubris.

But I really felt that collecting enough data to be “statistically interesting” was not completely out of reach.

The kicker: in order to gather that much data, I was going to need some help.

I knew from past experience, that if I asked my email list to complete a survey (and it was the only request I sent them in that email), the response rate was usually in the neighborhood of 20-25%.

I also knew that I would need at least 1,000 responses if I was going to be able to extrapolate any of that data to the rest of the solopreneur population.

So I set a goal to recruit 50 partners for the project. Fifty partners with an average list size of 2,000 = 100,000 asks. And if we only got a 2% response rate, we’d be swimming in gravy.

The next task was to recruit those partners!

Who do you know? (and more importantly, who do you want to know?)

First I made a list of every person I had a connection to — weak or strong — who also served my target audience.

This list consisted of folks like…

  • Past Joint Venture partners
  • Future Joint Venture partners (yes, I have a wishlist)
  • Folks on my blog
  • My mastermind cohorts
  • Influencers I’d already been trying to create relationships with
  • Influencers who I’d taken a course with in the past
  • Vendors whose products and services fill the needs of my target audience
  • Current and former clients
  • Blogs where I’ve been published

My little pitch explained the project and what kind of data I hoped to collect.

I showed them how the information could be useful to them. And I offered some link juice and recognition on the survey itself and the resulting full-length report I would write when we were done. I promised to share all the raw data with them before anyone else.

I was very happy with who said yes. No, it wasn’t quite 50 partners. But it was pretty darn close. And a few of those folks had sizable enough lists that I felt good about hitting our goal for responses.

One of those was the proverbial frosting on the cake: The marketing department of one of my vendors agreed to help. We had a long conversation by phone and they told me I was one of their “power users” and that they’d like to see if there were other ways we could work together, too. (Score! We’re already working on our next project together.)

Lesson: You accomplish so much more when you collaborate with people. Especially those you might consider your “competitors.”

The yeast that grows your email list

Remember that the CAN-SPAM Act prohibits you from adding folks to your list willy-nilly (something you don’t want to do anyway, ever, CAN-SPAM or not).

And just because someone gives you their email address as part of a survey does not mean they want to get marketing messages from you.

Knowing that if I explicitly told folks they’d be added to my mailing list, they’d probably opt out of the survey, I played it safe. Here’s what I did instead:

I put together a list of enticements — several items donated by myself and the other survey partners — as a way to help folks say, “Sure, I’ve got 5 minutes to take your survey.”

Respondents were able to include their email address if they 1) Wanted to get the Summary Report and 2) Wanted to be included in the raffle drawing.

Out of the 1,163 responses, 91% of them gave me an email address.

How’d I get such a great response? I promised not to use their email address for ANYTHING else. That I would protect their privacy at all costs.

So how will this build your email list, you ask?

Good question! Here’s the strategy:

  • Respondents get an email when the report is ready that brings them to a landing page on my site where they can download the PDF. (The email also announces the raffle winners.)
  • In addition to the PDF, that landing page presents an opt-in offer for additional reports/tools that address their biggest marketing challenge (as noted by the first question they answered on the survey).

If they don’t choose to grab the helpful solution(s), then yes — they’ll be lost forever. But it’s more important to keep my promise and leave them alone, if that’s what they’d prefer.

Know, Like, Trust. It’s a process that can’t be rushed.

Lesson: Don’t get greedy. Look at each respondent as a person, not an email address. Take the opportunity to build trust and start a relationship with them. You’ll have a lot less unsubscribes going forward.

Mining for gold with an open-ended question

Most people don’t possess the skill to avoid introducing bias into multiple choice questions. Open-ended questions work because they allow people answer in any way they like.

The open-ended question are where you’ll find the very best (and most profitable) stuff. Our question on this survey was a follow-up to an earlier multiple choice question:

Please expand on your answer to Q1. What have you tried? What’s keeping you from getting results?

When the survey was over, I printed out more than 85 pages of responses to this question! Definitely better reading than the morning paper. Just grab a highlighter and a cup of coffee and you’re set. (Note: It took me three sittings to get through it all.)

In hindsight, I probably could’ve asked a better question. After reading over 1,100 answers, I can tell you there are still things I’d like to know. But they’re specific to my business so I’ll have to save them for a future research project. (Research is never done, my friend.)

What IS significant is that I now have a great (and long) list of ideas for new products, services and yes, even blog posts. AND I’ve got the problems expressed in my audience’s own words. Which will help me know just how to write the copy so it hits home.

Lesson: Think carefully about what kind of information will help you to help your audience. The best questions bring out the best answers.

Dishing up authority and social proof

The good news is that we collected enough responses to have some data that would be officially “statistically interesting.”

And the survey we conducted? It was on a topic that had never been documented before (at least, according to Google).

Knowing that this could be an important piece of research for lots of people, I’m publishing an in depth report and will focus my efforts on its wide distribution. (Note: If the topic of solopreneurs and their online marketing habits, successes and failures is of interest to you, see the link at the end of this post. The report will also detail how the survey itself was marketed and what lessons were learned along the way).

I also created an infographic and a summary report for the general public. I anticipate that these will be cited by others in as-yet-to-be produced content of their own. In fact, a few of my research partners are already developing some of it. (Stay tuned!)

Lesson: If you can publish some solid research — especially on a topic that hasn’t been documented before — you’ll become an authority in your audience’s eyes as well as Google’s.

And that’s more fun than a barrel of survey monkeys.

Editor’s Note: Though Copyblogger has never performed a single survey (yet), Brian Clark nonetheless swears the audience told him everything he needed to know.

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Reader Comments (35)

  1. says

    @Tea Silvestre cool website by the way. When i first started reading this article the author Jim Collins “good to great book” came to mind. Research, research research…. the data never lies.

    What you are asking us to do is to collect data so you know how best to respond to your audience. This in turn will drive you to create better tailored products to their needs, blog posts and content etc… I think most people know this is important, but are not sure where to start or think it takes too much time.

    But the results are really revealing. :)

  2. says

    This was a great refresher for me and a reminder to get back to the basics of market research! I am curious, though, how well surveys like these perform when launched through a social media platform rather than an email campaign?

    • says

      We used every method possible to spread the word on this one…social media, too. Email alone wasn’t enough. So, depending on your goals (number of responses you need, etc.) you’ll probably want to use any and every method available to you.

  3. says

    As one of the partners in this venture, I can say I learned as much from the process of publicizing the survey as from the results of the survey itself. Great sum-up, Tea.

  4. says

    Steve Jobs did everything possible to get a look at Xerox’s research plant. What was the result? The way you are going you could be the next Mac. Good sense.

  5. says

    Thanks for sharing so openly the details not only of what you did, but the how and the why. Your insights are much appreciated.

    Honoring the promises you made to potential survey respondents truly shows that you “walk the walk.” So many others I’ve seen online “talk the talk” about know/like/trust, but few actually live it.

    I’m happy to say I’m one of your subscribers and I find tremendous value in your emails and blog posts. Looking forward to reading your complete report.

    And now you’ve really got me thinking about how to do more research in my field.

  6. says

    I love your great points on what surveying your audience can do. We have found the same thing when working with our customers. We’re specifically focused on creating an easy way to distribute mobile surveys in-person at events or for sports teams. They’re goals are the same…grow their leads, learn more about their audience, etc. Although they have said staying up on the latest technology is important too.

    Great article.

  7. says

    As one of those people who answered “time management” as the biggest business challenge, there was some encouragement in this report (“hey, I’m not a total freak of nature”) and some interesting details that I wouldn’t have expected. That’s the beauty of research! You can really learn some interesting and useful things.

    My favorite lesson? –You accomplish so much more when you collaborate with people. Especially those you might consider your “competitors.”

    The whole world should be moving in this direction. Glad to be part of the corner of yours that’s making it happen.

  8. says

    Brilliant post Tea!
    I especially love that because people have replied to you in their own words, you’ve got the exact tone of voice and vocabulary you need to resonate with them when you write.
    As a copywriter that’s one of the hardest parts of writing anything to sell – inspired!

  9. says

    Hi Tea,

    Thanks for an excellent post on how to do proper research. I’ve conducted phone surveys for two years (what can I say, a college student gotta find a way to pay the bills) and I’m shocked the way certain big companies insult their customers’ intelligence. Honestly, I don’t see the point with all the awkwardly phrased 1-10 questions, but hey, maybe that’s just me. The surveys that ask interesting open-ended questions, which try to solve the customer’s problems, do much better. It’s not rocket science, you genuinely just have to care about your customers and they will respond to you. If you fail to meet their needs or discuss their delicate issues, you’re in for a rough call, to say the least… I embrace permission marketing 100 % because I only want to speak to people who want to hear what I have to say. Don’t get me wrong. When done right, surveys can be a rich source of information (you learn the language of your customer, their problems etc). When done wrong, you learn a lot too, but mainly about the frustration and disappointment of human nature.


    P.S. Excellent blog posts are well disguised surveys of the 21st century. The reason they’re so powerful is that they add value, solve a problem AND genuinely care about the reader. Now that’s just smart market research and way more fun :)

    • says

      I did a fair amount of that phone research myself when I was in college, too (so I understand your frustrations). A lot of that research is meant to be more quantitative in nature (vs the open-ended qualitative kind that includes open-ended questions). In order for any research to be statistically significant (vs. just interesting like mine), it’s got to pay a lot more attention to creating questions that don’t lend themselves to being interpreted by the respondents in any one particular way. (There’s a whole more to it than that, too — but I digress.) Suffice it to say, as solopreneurs our research MUST focus more on the qualitative if we want to get to the emotional stuff. We don’t have the luxury of spending thousands of dollars to find out what percentage of our target market eats toast for breakfast. We’ve got to be more worried about how our ideal clients FEEL about the toast. Glad you enjoyed this post!

  10. says

    What a great idea! Sure, it sounds like a lot of work, but I’m sure it’s worth it. I’d so be interested in finding out what questions were asked and what answers were received – I’m just nosy like that :)

  11. says

    Tea – ashamed to say this is the first time I’ve read your work and I really love it.
    I am a new business development specialist blogger and one of my favorite ‘tricks of the trade’ is to disguise selling as market research.

    Well-constructed research questionnaires are a pleasure to complete. Your audience should come away thinking you’re asked the right amount of information and they have been given the opportunity to tell you what THEY want to about each topic.
    Yet, even the big boys can get it wrong.
    Today I helped The Economist do a survey on mobile apps for their magazine. They asked questions like
    “what is your top way of commenting on our articles” and gave 3 options. The next question is “what is your next preferred option of commenting on our articles” And gave the same 3 options. They didn’t allow you to opt out of answering the second question if a) you didn’t have a second preference or b) you did not comment – you could not say NO. Which frustrated me….. so I told them in the answer to another question!

    I’m preparing a book about how the creative marketing agency of the future is managed using a similar methodology to you
    The questionnaire will come later…. you have helped me a lot with your structure and feedback.
    Thanks, Tea.

      • says

        Maggie, did you actually read the blog post. I hope you might reconsider your remark.

        In the startup world this is called “market validation”. Testing the market for your product or service and appraising pricing strategies. You can uncover prospective customers through research. That’s not ‘sugging’.

      • says

        Maggie, this interests me — is sugging (a term I hadn’t heard before) like when political pollsters call and ask misleading, influence-directing questions like, “Are you concerned about Candidate X’s history as a meth dealer?” in order to influence the person being called.

        Since I don’t know the term, I’m very interested to know the kinds of behavior it describes and how they reach the level of being unethical.

        • Maggie Young says

          Sonia, thanks for clarifying this for Rebeca. Tea’s article is exactly what market research should be. Sugging and frugging (or fundraising under the guise of market research) can be compared to the subliminal persuasion of our politicians in that they are indeed deceiving and dishonest. To me, it’s taking advantage of our innate human desire to participate and feel valued.

  12. says

    Amazing post Tea. I really enjoyed it and it glad you brought this out on how to do proper research. I remember once conducting phone surveys back and was actually irritated how such a well-known company could give feedback to customers! I think it’s high time for change and be the closest people to overwhelm customer in a manner that is intelligent and welcoming but not insult or a cold shoulder! Thanks a lot for sharing and I think this sounds so helpful to a big part of such surveys. I look forward for more. Great write up indeed!

  13. says

    Congratulations on accomplishing your huge undertaking, Tea. And thanks for sharing your experiences… I especially appreciated your insights about the “strange, but true” benefits of surveys that aren’t commonly realized. I hadn’t thought of a couple of them before reading your excellent post. You’ve given me some new menu ideas for the next time I whip up some survey goodies in my own marketing kitchen. Thanks!

    P.S. I downloaded your summary report (excellent info and presentation, BTW) and am looking forward to receiving the full report when ready. Thanks again for sharing your experiences!

  14. says

    It’s always a positive and wonderful thing to act like you promised. I like the fact that you embrace simplicity and produce unique writes. I like your posts and I have to confess that this one did it for me.

  15. says

    Making promises is no big deal but keeping them becomes a problem l just hope you will keep your promises. Your survey project is real boosting growth, do keep us posted on your developments please.

  16. says

    Hi Tea! excellent post and certainly gathering and researching data can very influential while getting the more traffic and leads to your site but I believe it can be only happen when you master the ability of producing great and valuable content and readers love your content and after that you can took the step to done surveys yourself of guru bloggers.

    Thanks for sharing wealthy information love reading this article. :-)

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