Survey Research: Definition, Methods & Examples for Small Businesses

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Market research isn't just for corporate giants. With the advent of technology, businesses of all sizes can now dig deeper into customer behavior, industry trends and other aspects. One way to collect data without breaking the wallet is to conduct survey research. This method has made its way into the business world and various academic fields, from public health to sociology.

The Importance of Market Research

Whether you're just starting a business or trying to develop new products or enter new markets, it's crucial to know your customers. That's where market research comes in. This process involves gathering information about target markets or prospective clients. When done right, it can provide valuable insights on customers' needs, wants and beliefs.

The primary goal of market research is to understand what your customers expect. This way, you'll be able to anticipate their needs, identify their pain points and develop products that fill a gap in the market or solve a problem. Furthermore, you'll get a clear picture of the social, technical and legal aspects of markets and get the information needed to make a sound business plan. Entrepreneurs may also conduct market research for brand tracking, risk analysis, SWOT analysis and other business processes.

Say you're planning to launch a new product or service. In this case, you may conduct market research to test the viability of your product. This process can also help you define and segment your target market, create buyer personas and make financial projections. Depending on your objectives, you may use the following methods and sources to collect data:

  • Survey research
  • Focus groups
  • Questionnaires
  • In-depth interviews
  • Commercial or public sources
  • Observation
  • Competitor websites and resources
  • Government reports
  • Industry-specific trade journals
  • Educational institutions

The research can be conducted in house or by third-party companies specializing in this field. Its end goal is to help you get a better understanding of your target market and get feedback from prospective clients. In this digital era, most companies conduct market research online to cut costs and reach more respondents. Online surveys, for instance, feel less intrusive than face-to-face or telephone surveys since people can respond on their own time and at their own pace.

What Is Survey Research?

One way to conduct market research is through surveys. This method involves asking participants to report on their thoughts, preferences, behaviors and more. Their answers allow marketers to collect relevant information and make informed decisions. Generally, survey research involves large random samples since they provide the most accurate insights.

A survey can be short or long and may use quantitative or qualitative research strategies or both. Some include targeted questions, while others are more flexible. Over the past years, survey research has become more rigorous. Marketers are now using scientifically tested methods to identify the population of interest and determine how and when to initiate the survey.

Depending on your preferences, you may conduct surveys by phone, email or online. Face-to-face surveys are typically conducted in malls and other high-traffic places. For example, if you own a car dealership, you may attend automotive trade shows to survey potential clients. All you need is a predetermined set of questions that relate to your business and a representative sample of your target market.

Why Use Surveys?

Survey research allows marketers to collect information relatively quickly. Plus, large samples of data can be collected in real-world scenarios. Another advantage of using this method is its convenience. The respondents can be surveyed in person or online via social media and websites as well as by phone or email.

As a marketer, you can use surveys to measure brand awareness, research a target market, identify business opportunities or get direct feedback from potential customers. Depending on the survey method used, you may ask open-ended questions, use visual presentations, create multiple-choice questionnaires and so on. Furthermore, you have more control over the sample size, data-collection method and survey design compared to other research strategies.

This method is relatively inexpensive, making it appealing for small business owners with limited budgets. Sending surveys by email costs next to nothing, as you can incentivize respondents with free product samples, discounts or special offers instead of money. Additionally, survey research is extremely versatile because of the wide range of question formats. The information collected can be used to test products and services, improve future projects and optimize your marketing efforts.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Surveys

Surveys can be both a quantitative research method that allows marketers to conduct statistical analysis and collect numerical data, and a qualitative method of research, helping you get in-depth information about a topic.

Qualitative surveys typically consist of open-ended questions or sentences with no numerical value. They are exploratory in nature and require detailed answers, making them suitable for small samples of individuals rather than large random samples. Restaurant owners, for instance, may use surveys to determine how their customers feel about food quality, menu selection and services.

Quantitative surveys, on the other hand, provide data that can be analyzed using statistics. This method relies on cold, hard facts. For example, quantitative survey data can be used to estimate the prevalence of diabetes or heart disease among middle-aged Americans and identify statistical relationships between those disorders and lifestyle factors such as nutrition, exercise habits or stress levels.

Cross-Sectional vs. Longitudinal Surveys

An important factor to consider is the time needed to complete a survey. If you're planning to study one or more representative samples at a single point in time, go for cross-sectional surveys. In this case, you will collect information about your customers without manipulating their environment or changing anything. For example, you may ask how they feel about one of your products at this point in time without mentioning anything about previous or future improvements or versions.

Longitudinal surveys, by contrast, require gathering data from the same customers repeatedly over several months, years or decades. A pharmaceutical company, for instance, may survey the same subjects multiple times to determine how cholesterol levels changed over the years after using a particular drug. This research method can reveal patterns of a variable over time, such as customer satisfaction or brand awareness. On the negative side, longitudinal research takes a lot of time and money and can be difficult to apply to large populations.

Cross-sectional studies, including surveys, are less costly and quicker in reaching a conclusion than longitudinal research. The downside is that they don't take into consideration other factors that can affect the relationship between cause and effect. For instance, customers who have had a bad experience with an older version of your product may have a negative perception of the current version even if it works significantly better. Therefore, their answers may be biased.

Types of Survey Research

With this research method, you can demonstrate that you care about customers’ opinions while gaining insights on the kinds of products, services and features in which they are interested. There are several ways to survey your prospects and existing clients, including but not limited to:

  • In-person interviews
  • Telephone interviews
  • Online interviews
  • Online questionnaires
  • Direct-mail questionnaires
  • Group-administered questionnaires

Survey research can be classified into two broad categories: interviews and questionnaires. Interviews typically include open-ended questions. Questionnaires, on the other hand, consist of closed-ended questions, but they may include open-ended questions as well. Both types of surveys can be conducted online, in person, by phone or by mail.

Face-to-face interviews involve the highest costs but allow you to present customers with brochures, product samples, promo materials and other resources. Interviewers must be trained in the area of study and possess strong interpersonal skills. Despite its effectiveness, this method has several limitations. For example, it may not be possible to send interviewers to another city or state or areas with high crime rates, whereas online interviews allow you to reach a global audience.

Consider the coverage of the target population when choosing a survey-research method. Estimate the costs involved as well as the response accuracy. Think about what types of questions you want to ask and how long it takes to complete the survey. Also, try to figure out where you can find a representative sample of individuals and their willingness to participate in the study.

How to Design a Survey

The first step to designing a survey is to define its objectives. Without a clear goal in mind, you won't know what information you need to collect and how to choose a representative sample.

For example, if you want to find out public opinion about your products, you will need to ask open-ended questions that allow for qualitative research. However, if you want to determine the effect of a price increase, you may ask closed-ended questions to collect quantitative data.

Next, decide on a survey-research method and make a list of questions. Keep them short and concise, avoid abstract concepts and use a simple, familiar language. Group the questions together based on how they relate to one another and arrange them in a logical sequence. Start with general questions to set the tone for the survey and put more difficult, sensitive questions near the end.

Let's say you want to measure customer satisfaction with a particular product. Use the following survey questionnaire design as a starting point:

1. What is your favorite product and why? (Open-ended question)

2. What made you choose this product?

3. What do you like most about it? (List a number of features, such as its functionality, portability, design and so on)

4. How long have you been using our product? (Closed-ended question — provide a number of options, such as less than a month, one to three months, one to three years, etc.)

5. How would you rate your satisfaction with this product?

  •        Very satisfied
  •        Somewhat satisfied
  •        Neutral
  •        Dissatisfied

6. How likely you are to recommend our products to others? (use a scale from one to 10, with one being "not at all likely" and 10 — extremely likely)

7. Would you purchase or use our product again? (Use a scale from one to five)

8. Do you have any recommendations for improving our product? Is there anything you would change about it?

Pre-Test Your Survey

Consider testing the survey on a small group, such as your family, friends or social-media followers before distributing it to a larger audience. Avoid asking questions that your respondents might find uncomfortable.

Always use screening questions to determine whether or not the subjects are qualified to take your survey. Select samples that represent your target audience.

Double check your questions for readability and avoid instilling bias. Keep in mind that different cultures and individuals may interpret certain words differently from one another. Therefore, you need to consider the individual and cultural characteristics of each group. Make sure that it's easy to respond to your questions and that they are nonoffensive.

Limitations to Survey Research

All research methods have their drawbacks, and surveys are no exception. Sometimes, they fail to provide accurate insights simply because they are poorly designed. Common mistakes such as asking for sensitive information like income, race or gender right from the start may lead to response bias. A survey that's too long may cause the respondents to quit or randomly check boxes.

Additionally, surveys are not always accurate because of missing or unclear data, rigidity and low validity rates. For example, the number of subjects who choose to answer a question can be smaller than that of subjects who choose not to respond, leading to inaccurate results. Plus, answer options like "somewhat agree" or "somewhat disagree" may be interpreted differently by respondents. Even simple options like "yes" or "no" can affect the survey results under certain circumstances.

Say you conduct a survey online and by mail and then realize that your phrasing on a particular question was misunderstood by several subjects. In-depth interviews, by comparison, allow researchers to explain or tweak more complex questions and avoid confusion among respondents.

All in all, despite their limitations, surveys can be an excellent source of quality information and pave the way for further studies. The results are priceless for small businesses looking to make data-driven decisions and address customers' needs.

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About the Author

Andra Picincu is a digital marketing consultant with over 10 years of experience. She works closely with small businesses and large organizations alike to help them grow and increase brand awareness. She holds a BA in Marketing and International Business and a BA in Psychology. Over the past decade, she has turned her passion for marketing and writing into a successful business with an international audience. Current and former clients include The HOTH, Bisnode Sverige, Nutracelle, CLICK - The Coffee Lover's Protein Drink, InstaCuppa, Marketgoo, GoHarvey, Internet Brands, and more. In her daily life, Ms. Picincu provides digital marketing consulting and copywriting services. Her goal is to help businesses understand and reach their target audience in new, creative ways.