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Surveying Your Audience          Print the current page
by Brian D. Chmielewski

Once valuable traffic finds your cyber real estate, how will you strengthen your understanding of whether you are meeting your visitor's expectations? Web sites that are intent on building community and engaging site visitors as active participants in an evolving environment should care tremendously about the methods they employ for acquiring information and the accuracy of the data that is gathered. Feedback is the key. Regardless of where your community originates from - site registration, online newsletter, etc. - you should be supremely interested in what your audience has to say about your efforts. Although technology is advancing, you must be intelligent enough today to know that you cannot deduce the steps to success without input from those that use your product or service. So, to truly discover your community and evaluate your efforts, survey your audience.

Putting it Together
However general, you should have a reasonable idea of the basic shared traits of those traveling to your web site. A site that offers corporate barter arrangements like Barter Worldwide < http://barterwww.com >, knows that its site patrons are comprised of entrepreneurs, Web-based start-ups, marketers and other business people that share a common characteristic - capital-scarce entities that prefer to barter or trade their technological-rich products or services to market themselves. Knowing this root audience allows you to make certain assumptions in developing the voice and questions for your survey.

Questions are important, but the answers to your questions are what really qualify your understanding of your audience. Through the Internet, you can offer drop-down menus, check boxes or radio buttons that offer preformatted answers to your questions. Be persistent in thoroughly refining your answers, since they are the seeds that you will need to grow future marketing efforts. Do not make questions difficult to understand and remember to add one or more verifiers to check the validity of each applicant's response. Asking the same question twice or wording it differently and then validating the replies to that question can tip you off to respondents who quickly completed your survey only to get the free giveaway. Tallying the number of respondents who fail your verification suggests a rough statistical standard of error. Avoid presenting opportunities for your respondents to enter free text responses since it can increase the possibility of misspellings and inappropriate responses, complicating your analysis of the data later on. And most importantly make it short. Don't expect more than a few minutes of attention from your recipients. Personally take your survey, doubling the time that it took you to complete it for a realistic estimate of what time frame you are asking of your audience.

If your survey is intended for a few hundred users, you may elect to distribute it via your email software, but if you're dealing with tens or hundreds of thousands of recipients you need a more stalwart and efficient mechanism. There are services on the Web that offer survey distribution via email, response tabulation and real time reporting, so that you can see the responses as they accrue. Some services offer a keen approach to distribution. Their service creates unique URL's based on a user's email address and your online survey page, so that the identity of the recipient is already known as they click through to complete your questionnaire. This allows web site publishers to associate survey responses with email addresses without having to ask the identity of the visitor - something that users are sometimes unwilling to provide due to issues of privacy. Beyond simply informing you that you have a responsive participant in your community, you now have important information to shape your web communication to furnish your participant's needs.

Be Careful What Your Ask For...
Prophesies have a way of fulfilling themselves but the answers to your survey questions often don't. Only ask what is necessary to add value to your communication. You will experience dismal results if you ask extraneous or overly invasive questions. When you develop a survey, make sure there is some sort of benefit the person gains from filling it out. It doesn't necessarily have to be a freebie. It can be an explanation that you are trying to provide the services and information they need, so you are asking them to complete the survey as a customer service tool. To set it up for future targeted marketing, you should also ask if it is ok to send them information related to their areas of interest.

Mining Your Results
Analyzing and evaluating your data can be an interesting and eye-opening experience. Upon reviewing your data, it is a possibility that your audience composition differs from your pre-survey impression of them. This could expose additional niches that you did not consider or cater to and/or trigger your need to implement special promotions to invigorate the volume of specific segments of your audience.

With results in hand, you are now armed with viable ammunition to converge on more personal and responsive marketing campaigns. Really knowing your audience allows you to be more resourceful in your copy, promotions, resources - everything that your web site focuses on. For instance, a survey that reveals the percentage of job titles associated with your site's visitors permits you to extrapolate that data to others who share those titles, presenting an opportunity to target them. With your existing audience, you will be able to send more personalized opt-in email messages < http://www.uPromote.com/email.html >, addressing them by name or offering unique opportunities based on the preferences that they outlined in their survey responses. By understanding the participants in your community, you can rediscover you web site's potential.

One final note. Clearly state your intentions at the outset of your survey. If you are going to use this information solely for your own improvement or if you will sell this information to a third party, be certain to let your participants know before they complete your questionnaire. They have a right to know. Imagine your surprise if all of your subscribers abandoned you because you didn't admit that your survey information was being passed to to a third party who proceeded to spam them in your name.

First published in WebPromote's August 1998, Vol. 1 newsletter.