Don't trust online polls. That's what traditional-minded researchers have been telling business owners for years. The Internet isn't diverse enough to be a valid testing ground, they argue, so data gathered online is bound to be skewed.

If that argument was ever valid, it no longer is. Consumers of all stripes are giving feedback to businesses online. One out of every four American Internet users--about 33 million people--has rated a product, service, or person online, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, an initiative of the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center. That number is expected to grow as consumers become accustomed to having more interactive relationships with companies, says Lee Rainie, director of Pew Internet. "We're well past the time when this was an activity of early adopters," he says. "This is how consumers want and expect to communicate with businesses."

At the same time, new technology offered by companies such as SurveyMonkey, based in Portland, Oreg., and WebSurveyor, based in Herndon, Va., is making it easier for companies to conduct online polls. The polling software aggregates hundreds of responses to multiple-choice questions into easy-to-read documents, complete with graphs and charts, that can be mined for information on everything from customer satisfaction to product development.

Online polls have been a boon for Michael Kahn, senior director of consumer and trade marketing for Chicago-based Socrates, which sells do-it-yourself legal forms to business owners. Kahn regularly surveys customers to figure out what new products would appeal to them. One evening this past January, he sent out an e-mail inviting customers to fill out a poll consisting of 34 multiple-choice questions. By the next morning, he had received hundreds of replies. The response to one question in particular piqued his interest: A majority of property owners said they were likely to rent or lease an apartment without any assistance. Armed with the poll results, Kahn pitched a new product to his managers: a do-it-yourself background-check kit for landlords. Six months later, the kit hit the market. "I am in love with this tactic," Kahn says.

Web surveys are the quickest way to find out if a product or service is up to par once it's unveiled. Open-ended surveys can also turn up suggestions on everything from cost cutting to marketing. Cameron Herold, chief operating officer of 1-800-Got-Junk?, a trash-removal company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, frequently sends surveys to his company's customers and franchisees. He's often surprised by the results. A recent poll revealed that franchisees thought a newly designed box for the back of the trash-removal trucks was a waste of money. "We thought it was amazing," he says. "They told us it was terrible." Another poll revealed that many customers were concerned about recycling, so Herold added information about 1-800-Got-Junk?'s ecofriendly initiatives in the company's marketing materials. "We want to tell people up-front that we're already doing something they care about," he says.

Besides getting feedback from existing customers, online polls can help attract new ones. Elizabeth Morley, director of corporate marketing at Books24x7, an online library of technical and business books based in Norwood, Mass., offers companies free access to her site on a trial basis. Before the trial period ends, Morley asks users to fill out an online survey rating the library and explaining how often they used it and for what reasons. Then she incorporates the data into a customized sales pitch. Being able to present concrete examples of how the online library helped a company's employees during the trial period goes a long way toward convincing decision makers to sign up, Morley says.

Web surveys can encourage employees to open up as well. Herold regularly polls his employees, encouraging them to be forthright by promising anonymity and by wording the surveys in such a way that prompts the "most brutal feedback." He recently asked the members of his own work group to suggest three things he should be doing differently. Their answer: Go on vacation. "Not them, me," he says.

Employees are likely to jump at the chance to tell you what they're thinking. But some customers may bristle at the notion of filling out a survey.

Employees are likely to jump at the chance to tell you what they're thinking, especially if they're given anonymity. But some customers may bristle at the notion of filling out a survey, online or off. To sweeten the pot, DigitalMailer, a company based in Herndon, Va., that provides e-business services to credit unions, enters respondents into drawings for prizes such as iPod Minis and $50 gift certificates to Best Buy.

Keeping people interested is the other half of the battle. Avoid asking too many questions related to demographics in the beginning of the survey--save those for the end. Also, keep the surveys as brief as possible. There's no magic number, but, in general, the longer you've had a relationship with a customer, the more questions he or she will be willing to answer. Finally, be sure to provide a space where customers can make additional comments and suggestions. You may not always like what they have to say, but at least you'll be informed.


To read the Pew Center's research on Internet usage, which includes demographic information and analysis, go to offers tips on creating online surveys and provides a variety of free samples.

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