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By Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D. President, Discovery Surveys, Inc.
This article originally appeared in Folio magazine

To get the right answers, you must ask the right questions,
at the right time, and in the right format. Here's how.

You have urgent questions that need answers:

These are the types of questions that can be answered with readership surveys. But, to get answers that are valid, that pass the credibility test, the survey must be properly conducted. Here are some important guidelines.

Choose the right survey method. There are four basic approaches to gathering the opinions of readers: focus groups, telephone surveys, mail surveys, and in-magazine surveys. Each method is appropriate for particular purpose.


Keep it simple. Mailed surveys or in-magazine surveys should be kept to a single page. Questions should be closed-ended, since open-ended or fill-in-the-blanks questions are more difficult for readers to complete -- and cumbersome to analyze. Rating scales, checklists or true-or-false questions work best. It is also important to use the same response scale throughout the survey. It is difficult, for example, for readers to alternate between a five-point rating scale and a ranking scale. For mailed surveys, readers should be provided with a self addressed, postage-paid reply envelope.

Ask interesting questions first. Studies have shown that asking the questions that readers find the most interesting at the beginning of the survey increases the chances that readers will complete the survey and return it to you.

Don't get too personal. Respondents are often understandably unwilling to give their names, addresses, phone numbers or incomes. However, if this information is vital to the purpose of the survey, ask for it at the end of the survey. Respondents are more likely to answer these questions once they have psychologically committed to the survey.

Offer an incentive. Respondent incentives can increase response rates. There are many different approaches to incentives to respondents. One publication we work with offers a copy of the survey results as well as a chance to win $500. Sometimes we offer to contribute $25 to a well-respected charity for each completed survey we receive. Placing a $1 bill in a mail survey can also improve the response rate.

Plan the data analysis ahead of time. If, for example, you want to know how three different subsets of your readers respond to a particular set of questions, print the survey in three different colors. That way, you will be able to analyze the data for each group without compromising the confidentiality of respondents. Or, if you plan to include any open-ended questions, make certain you have the available administrative resources to categorize or type the written comments.

Just as important as knowing what to do is knowing what not to do. In terms of reader research, there are three big pitfalls to be avoided.

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