Everything you should (and shouldn’t) include in email surveys

Dan Croxen-John and Johann van Tonder, authors of E-Commerce Website Optimization, explain how to create the perfect email survey.

An email survey is a great way of getting to know your users quickly, because it’s easy to launch and can generate a large number of responses. Use it to gather demographic and attitudinal data across a broad spectrum, but acknowledge that it’s not great at exposing usability problems.

Open or closed questions?

A survey is only as good as the questions. We tend to prefer open-ended questions and open text responses. This is to avoid leading the respondent into an answer and to benefit from hearing the respondent’s own words. Sometimes the way in which something is expressed, or the specific words chosen, are as important as what is being said. This is lost when respondents are given answers to choose from.

These responses can also help you later on with creative work, because the actual quotes can be valuable to inform copy and may even end up being used semi-verbatim in copy or headlines. Although primarily a qualitative research technique, it’s possible to apply quantitative analysis to open-question analysis, provided you have sufficient responses.

There is however the advantage, with closed questions, of changing the direction of questions depending on the responses given, a technique known as conditional branching. This way you can have respondents self-select their segment, and then ask them relevant follow-up questions. Some examples of segments that we use regularly include:

• one-time buyers
• multi-buyers
• non-buyers
• lapsed buyers
• big spenders

How many questions should you ask in a survey?

There are no hard and fast rules about the ideal number of questions. Nevertheless, always pose as few as you possibly can, especially if you use open text. Give the option to skip questions unless you have a good reason to make it mandatory such as ‘conditional branching questions’ where you need a response in order to channel the respondent down the appropriate path.

Sample questions

What questions to ask depends on so many things that it’s impossible to offer a universal list. The following are just meant to give you ideas. Think about your unique situation and what you need to know about your customers and their needs.

Dan Croxen-John and Johann van Tonder, authors of E-Commerce Website Optimization

Dan Croxen-John and Johann van Tonder, authors of E-Commerce Website Optimization

Closed questions:

• Demographics: age, education, etc.
• How many times have you bought from our online shop?
– never
– in the last 30 days
– 1–3 months ago
– more than 3 months ago
• How often do you visit our site to look at an item but go into one of our stores to buy it?
– not usually
– sometimes
– routinely
• How would you describe yourself?
– professional photographer
– serious amateur
– novice
• Do you:
– own your house?
– rent your house?
• What products have you purchased from our site?
• How frequently do you purchase X product?
• When last did you purchase from us?

Open or closed, depending on your objectives and existing intelligence. If closed, always offer an ‘Other, please specify’ option:

• What alternative products/technologies did you consider before buying this item?
• At which shops or online stores have you shopped for the product you most recently purchased from our site?
• What factors did you consider when buying the product you most recently purchased from our site?
• Which website do you like buying from?
• What is it about your favourite shopping site that you like?

Open text answers, where the purpose is to get attitudinal insight:

• How would you describe our site/product/brand to a friend?
• What influenced your decision to purchase online as opposed to instore?
• Why did you buy from us and not another website or shop?
• What do you like about Competitor X?
• What do you like about us compared with Competitor X?
• What has been the best/worst thing about your experience as our customer?
• What concerns and fears did you have when shopping on our site?
• What one thing could we change to persuade you to shop with us more?
• Please describe your entire decision-making process behind your most recent purchase. For example: I was looking for blinds, but didn’t want to pay too much, and a friend recommended your brand. I had a look online and was impressed with the prices. I visited one of your stores to look at the blinds, then went home to order online.
• How are you using product X?
• Why exactly did you need the product that you came to the site for?
• It can be said that we buy things to improve aspects of our lives. What difference in your life did you expect this product to make?
• How would your life be different if you weren’t able to use X product?
• If you were CEO, how would you improve the website?

E-Commerce Website Optimization by Dan Croxen-John and Johann van Tonder is out now, published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99. For more information visit http://www.awa-digital.com.

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