Techniques: Off the Shelf: Software

It's cost-effective and efficient to use the Internet to design, distribute, compile, and analyze targeted surveys

The Product: InstantSurvey, from NetReflector, in Redmond, Wash. (425-558-2007; charges based on usage)
Requirements: Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.02 or higher or Netscape Navigator 3.02 or higher
Reviewer: Tim Riester, president of Riester-Robb Advertising and Public Relations, in Phoenix

As president of a fast-growing ad agency, I am always working with my staff to enhance our clients' satisfaction and expand our customer base. Reliable feedback from our clients is a crucial component of our continued success. So I was pleased to try out Net-Reflector's InstantSurvey. This Internet-based tool not only helps feedback-hungry businesspeople like me design and distribute our own questionnaires but also compiles, analyzes, and delivers the results.

The advertising business is brutally competitive, so I was relieved to learn that Instant-Survey's databases automatically compile survey results with no human intervention, and that SSL encryption, individual account passwords, and server firewalls protect survey results from intruders. Best of all, though, I'm pleased to report that this product is not at all difficult to use. I didn't have to download or install anything. I simply clicked on my Internet browser, typed, and registered for a free trial, and when the main menu came up, I set out to design our customer-service survey.

Getting started is straightforward. From the main-menu choices (questionnaire creation, questionnaire distribution, survey management, short tutorials, administration tools, and instant survey examples) I selected questionnaire creation, and that presented me with another list of choices. At first, I thought I'd "customize a questionnaire template," but when I realized I couldn't easily mold any of the 10 choices, which included a restaurant survey and a college-course evaluation, into a customer-feedback vehicle, I backtracked and started from scratch.

Having taken advantage of the option that allowed me to compose questions off-line, I had to get my Microsoft Word file onto InstantSurvey's Web site. Help--in the form of a question-mark icon--resides at the top of every screen, and I quickly found the buttons I needed to import my file. Once it was on-line, I was ready to select answer options.

Responding to Instant-Survey's prompts, I arrived at its multiple-choice response library. My survey asks our clients to "rate Riester-Robb's performance on your most recent project," and with a click of an icon, I inserted possible answers--excellent, very good, good, fair, poor--with check boxes. For open-ended questions like "What can we do to improve our service?" InstantSurvey provides a text box. We have 10 clients, so the free trial, which allowed me to survey 25 people, was perfect. But it's nice to know that InstantSurvey can handle crowds of 50,000.

All on-line surveys reside at InstantSurvey's Web site, but your respondents don't have to know that. Companies with their own sites can simply link to the survey page, but that method may not produce the largest or most scientific sample since site visitors are, by definition, self-selecting. Alternatively, you can use InstantSurvey's E-mail engine to send out invitations to take the survey together with a link or a URL to the survey page. The advantage of that option is that each E-mail recipient gets his or her own unique URL, allowing you to track responses and send reminders to the laggards.

We chose a third option: sending out URLs over our own E-mail system. While that meant forfeiting the tracking/reminder capabilities, it saved us time because we didn't have to cut and paste each recipient's address as we would have had to do using InstantSurvey's system.

Before you release your questionnaire, InstantSurvey's "distribution wizard" asks you how long you want the survey to last and how many responses you want to collect. When the survey period is over, InstantSurvey E-mails you the location of an HTML report, which includes all the text responses and the percentage of respondents who chose each answer. You may also download the raw survey data.

InstantSurvey bases charges on survey length and the number of responses collected. A 15-question survey to which 1,000 people file responses would cost $2,500--a frugal choice for a growing company not quite ready to spend $100,000 a year for a good director of research.