There was a time when you practically had to hire a scientist to research the market for a product or service. These days, you can choose among dozens of online tools for polling customers, employees, and complete strangers. Options range from free services that let you create quick polls for learning about visitors or entertaining them with results, to pricey "feedback management" systems that can analyze years of responses, storing gigabytes of survey results as securely as if the information were valuable company financial data. Which, in a way, it is. Most new survey tools are versatile and Web-based and require no software installation. Here are some ways companies are using them.
Assembling quick focus groups
The zPro software is for designing Web-based surveys and viewing results. Zoomerang Sample sends a survey to a portion of its 2.5 million-member online panel.
In action: In 2004, former advertising exec Patrick Raymond got the brainstorm for a shower curtain-rod attachment that created more elbow room in a shower by pushing the curtain out slightly. He needed affordable market research to see if anyone else cared. In 2005 and 2006, Raymond had Zoomerang send two 20-question surveys, which he designed himself using the zPro software, to samples of U.S. adults who had a shower curtain in their main bathrooms. He got about 400 responses to each and paid $5,000 total.
"The survey results blew me away," he says. Forty-three percent of respondents said their shower curtains crowd them; 28 percent said they probably or definitely would buy a product like the one he proposed. The numbers made it into his business plan, with which he raised about $500,000. The data also helped convince an industrial design firm that Raymond was worth taking on as a customer. The $19.99 ShowerBow started selling this year. One area in which the research hasn't helped a lot has been in winning retail distribution, Raymond says (though ShowerBow is sold at Amazon.com). And, although Zoomerang offers a service in which it will help devise a survey, users are on their own in making sense of survey results.
Pricing: $599 a year (or $199 for three months) for unlimited use of the survey software. $500 and up per survey for use of Zoomerang's panel. (Reaching more targeted groups costs more.)
Monitoring customer satisfaction
SurveyMonkey is Web-based software for creating, administering, and viewing results of online surveys.
In action: Queensboro Shirt, a $12 million seller of custom-embroidered shirts, caters to small-business buyers whose average order is under $200. It never had salespeople dedicated to particular customers. But president and founder Fred Meyers always liked to have the company give clients follow-up calls asking about their satisfaction. As the business grew, and online sales took off, it became difficult to call everyone personally. So Meyers had his website programmers weave a connection to SurveyMonkey's polling software into the order processing system.
Now, in addition to receiving automated order and shipping confirmations, each Queensboro customer receives an e-mail--scheduled to arrive a day after the product does--with a link to a 10-question customer satisfaction survey. Buyers are asked questions that rate their happiness with things like product quality and delivery speed. Queensboro did some extra programming to convert the ratings into a sort of "grade point average" for each metric of satisfaction. The company's managers use the scores to guide their operational decisions. For example, when Queensboro noticed scores for shipment speed lagging, the company put more resources into delivering products within 10 days. "It's like bringing customers to the conference table," says Meyers.
Pricing: $200 per year for unlimited use or $19.95 a month for 1,000 survey responses per month
Building a polling network
Vizu will place a poll--typically one question--on multiple websites, the way you might run an ad on various sites. Vizu has deals with 700 established sites that cover disparate interests, so you can select the demographic you want to hear from.
In action: Greg Deutsch needed research on pizza preferences, specifically what kind of crust and sauce residents of Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee prefer. Within the giant Food Services of America, a $3 billion private company that distributes food to stores and institutions, Deutsch directs retail sales for a small unit that formulates "take and bake" pizzas that grocery stores private-label.
Looking to approach stores armed with knowledge of regional pizza tastes, Deutsch had Vizu post two one-question polls (about crust and sauce) on 50 websites. Responses started immediately, but because Deutsch wanted to know only about respondents from four states, accumulating data took time (Vizu uses IP addresses to tell where someone is). Over three months ending in August, the question about pizza crust got about 452,000 page views--and 131 qualifying responses.
The results aren't rigorously scientific, but Deutsch feels he will have an advantage by being able to go to prospective customers knowing that a substantial percentage of people in their region like thick crust more. "In my business, the majority rules," he says. Vizu's fee: about $800.
Pricing: $1 and up per qualified response, depending on the specificity of the target demographic
Hearing employees think
EFM Feedback is a subscription service designed for ongoing surveys of customers or employees. Vovici will store historic data securely and provides reports as well as analysis.
In action: BDO Seidman, a Chicago accounting firm with 2,500 employees in 35 U.S. offices, conducted its first companywide survey in 2005. Employees indicated how they felt about the firm's benefits, management, career development, and other issues, about 50 questions in all. The company conducted the survey itself, via a website. What it got back was "very much raw data" that took the human resources staff more time than anyone expected to wrangle into digestible format, says Sandi Guy, national director of human resources.
This year Seidman did the survey again but handed off the job to Vovici. Vovici built a webpage for the questions, and the accounting firm sent each employee an e-mail containing a link to the survey. About 55 percent responded. Vovici prepared a summary that broke down the anonymous responses by region, office, and practice area and compared the responses with those from 2005. The report went to the human resources department and the company's top management, and Vovici advised the firm on how to roll out results to employees. "A lot of the feedback, some people said they were unclear what the path to partnership was," Guy says. BDO Seidman spent about $30,000.
Pricing: $1,800 per year and up--to six figures--depending on usage and reports desired. Vovici also offers low-cost Web polls.
A Free Quick One
To create a free or low-cost poll for your website, the dozens of options include SurveyMonkey.com, Vizu.com, Zoomerang.com, Freepolls.com, InstantSurvey.com, and WebPollCentral.com.
For more information about online survey tools, go to www.inc.com/keyword/techtools.