According to association consulting firm, Potomac Core, only 63% of association members feel that they're getting value from their membership fees. That's a scary number, especially as associations struggle to stay relevant in today's marketplace.
It also highlights just how important it is for your association to provide the benefits and offers that members want. And, with new technology and industry changes being announced every day, those member benefits and offers cannot remain static. They must be updated, optimized, and improved to provide more and more value to your members.
However, it is a bad idea to guess at your members' challenges, passions, and priorities. In order to consistently improve your association and its offers, you need data and member feedback.
Though surveys are one of several methods for getting this information, they are very popular for their low cost and relatively low effort. They can provide you with in-depth data for benchmarking studies, as well as member feedback on your association's value and how it could be improved.
Writing a survey that gets the information you need, however, is trickier than it looks. Everything from unfocused questions to the wrong wording can affect responses and skew your results. Written incorrectly, your results won't be accurate or relevant, sabotaging the survey's usefulness.
You need to be deliberate and focused when writing your survey so that your questions are concise, pointed, and effective in getting the information you need. Here are five secrets to help you write the best survey questions to receive the most responses as well as the best study data and member feedback.
Before you jump into writing survey questions revisit your survey's purpose, which you should have set up in the initial planning stage. If you don't know your goals or purpose, determine them now, before you begin writing. Every instruction, description, and question you write for your survey should support your purpose.
If your goal is to improve your events, you should write about events. If you want to find out what people think about your member benefits or how engaged members are in your online community, ask about those topics.
Be specific with your purpose and goals, centering them around one main idea. Your main idea can be broad, such as an event, or it can be specific, such as one particular event session. Just make sure your survey's subject isn't too broad. The more specific your subject, the more likely it is that you'll be able to write questions that elicit useful, detailed information from your members.
There are several kinds of questions that you can use in your survey and they all have advantages and disadvantages. Choose the question type, or the combination of question types, that best serve your purpose.
Here are a few to think about:
Open-Ended Questions: Open-ended questions allow members the freedom to fill in their own answers. They can respond as directed, but they also have the space to explain their answers if they want. For example, "What was your favorite part of the event?" is an open-ended question that many people will not only answer, but also voluntarily explain.
The advantage of an open-ended question is that you can receive more extensive information. The disadvantage is that you may also get more general or off-topic answers. If someone answers "What was your favorite part of the event?" with "I met a man who gave me a great barber recommendation" then you probably didn't get the feedback you needed.
In it also important to note that, by giving members the freedom to craft their own answers, rather than select from a pre-defined menu of answers, you get more informative data, but it is more difficult to process to spot trends.
Close-Ended Questions: Close-ended questions are similar to open-ended questions in that they still allow members to fill in their own answers, but they're more straightforward. "Have you ever commented on a blog post?" is a close-ended question that should clearly be answered with "yes" or "no." You're more likely to get the information you need from a close-ended question, but with fewer response possibilities, you may also miss out on valuable insight from members.
Multiple Choice Questions: With multiple choice questions, you decide how members can respond. You determine a pre-set group of answers for members to select from, which helps you narrow your focus. You'll get the type of answers you want and the specificity that you need.
For example, if you ask "How often do you visit our website?" and receive the response "occasionally" in an open-ended question, you still don't have a valuable answer. What does "occasionally" mean? With a multiple choice question you can have your members choose from "every day," "twice a week," or "once a month" so you get the details you want.
While multiple choice answers are more specific, they're also more restrictive. Like close-ended questions, that restriction could cause you to miss out on some of the freeform insight that open-ended questions provide.
Leading questions are those that, intentionally or unintentionally, point toward a certain response. "How soon do you plan to pursue a professional certification?" is an example of a leading question. It assumes that the respondent plans to pursue a professional certification at some point in their career, directing members to respond with a time frame.
Leading questions can skew your survey results. Instead, use questions like "Are you interested in professional certifications?" to avoid pointing your members toward any specific answer. By avoiding leading questions, you'll be more likely to get genuine responses that reflect what your members are actually interested in.
Be careful to avoid leading questions in your benchmarking surveys as well. If professionals analyze your research and find leading questions, it could damage your reputation as an expert in the field and invalidate your findings. Accurate results from unbiased questions will also be more useful to your industry.
General questions with a wide variety of possible answers have their place (for example, "Do you have any suggestions for us?"), but typically you will get more useful responses with specific questions that focus on your purpose.
For instance, if you want to know if a discount on professional technology certifications would be a good benefit for your members, do not ask: "Do you like discounts?" If members are thinking about a discount they just got on a new car when they answer "yes" then that information isn't relevant. Instead, be specific and ask "Would you like a discount on a professional technology certification?"
Specific questions will result in more useful responses that directly relate to your ideas.
To get more members to participate in your survey, you need to make the survey brief and easy to fill out. Five full pages of questions is daunting, but one short page is easy. More members will take the time to complete your survey when it's brief.
Decide on just a few questions, usually between five and 10, that cover all the information that you need. Try to fit all those question on a single page. If your purpose and questions are specific enough, this should be easy. If you're doing an in-depth benchmarking study where this isn't possible, make sure participants understand the depth of your research and how it will impact your industry. Give them a reason to participate.
Expert Tip: If you're worried about how long your survey is, use more multiple choice questions. Multiple choice questions are easier and faster for members to answer, making the survey seem less daunting. Just remember that this isn't a pass to create a longer survey, even multiple choice questions are tiring after a few pages. Most of us remember exactly how much we hated those endless multiple choice bubble forms we filled out for grade school's standardized tests.
The number and type of survey questions that you write, as well as how you write them, can change how members respond to your surveys. The most effective surveys take this into account with careful writing techniques and best practices that help ensure honest answers. Do your best to be concise and focused, and avoid leading your members toward any one answer.
The better your questions are, the more likely it is that you'll receive honest, helpful information that you can act on to improve your association and the industry as a whole.