10 Survey Question Mistakes that Can Ruin Your Market Research Results

Quantitative market research data is only useful when it accurately reflects an audience’s opinions. Your ability to collect accurate data requires that you survey the right audience but also that you ask the right questions.

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Gaining insights from consumers through survey questions is both an art and science. A question that makes perfect sense to you might be utterly confusing to someone else. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to ensure the survey questions you write will actually help you reach your market research goals.

Most importantly, you need to avoid common survey question mistakes that can skew your market research results. Below are 10 of these mistakes that could negatively affect the usefulness of the data you collect through your surveys. Avoid making this mistakes as you write your survey questions, and you can feel much more confident in your results and make better decisions based on your data.

1. Leading Questions

A leading question uses wording that creates a perception in the respondent’s mind which “leads” them to answer the question in a specific way. For example, a question that asks, “Do you agree with President Trump’s harsh stance on immigration?” could lead some respondents to have a negative perception of Trump’s position on immigration simply because the word ‘harsh’ is used. Not only is the question biased, but respondents might be subconsciously compelled to answer based on the leading nature of the wording.

To avoid this mistake, avoid using unnecessary adjectives or adverbs that could alter a respondent’s answer by directly or indirectly leading them to believe a certain answer is more correct than another.

2. Unspecific Questions

Your survey questions should be extremely specific and make it very clear to respondents exactly what information you’re trying to get from them. For example, if you want to learn what consumers think of your brand’s new name, don’t ask, “Do you like this brand name?” Not only will you get unspecific responses that won’t help you as you try to define your brand, but you’ll also get responses that don’t provide the information you need. Respondents could give you their opinions about why they liked your old brand name more without providing any information related to their thoughts on the new brand name.

To avoid this mistake, make sure your questions are specific and leave no room for confusion in terms of what information you want respondents to provide.

3. Too Many Yes/No Questions

Yes/no questions are perfect when you need to collect factual information such as “Do you own an iPhone?” They’re not as useful when you want to collect deeper opinions because they don’t give you an opportunity to explore why people feel a certain way. Think of the question, “Do you like this brand name?” If you use a yes/no question type to collect this information, you won’t know what people like or don’t like about the name. You need more information to make effective business decisions.

To avoid this mistake, use yes/no questions to gather factual information, but use other question types when you need opinions and more context for respondents’ answers.

4. Answers are Not Mutually Exclusive

Respondents shouldn’t have to wonder which answer to choose to answer your survey question because the answer choices presented to them aren’t mutually exclusive. Each answer should be distinct from the others. For example, a question that asks respondents to share the number of movies they see in a theater each month should provide distinct ranges within each answer choice such as:

  • 2 or fewer
  • 3-5
  • 6-8
  • 9 or more

If the ranges were 0-3, 3-5, 5-8, and 8 or more, respondents who watch three movies per month wouldn’t know which response to choose.

To avoid this mistake, review your answer choices and make sure there is not a possibility that a respondent could choose two answers when you only want them to provide one answer.

5. Too Many Questions

The longer your survey gets, the less likely people are to complete it. AYTM limits the number of questions allowed in surveys to 25 for this reason. At a certain point, fatigue sets in and answer quality deteriorates. Eventually, the abandonment rate starts to go up as does respondent frustration and dissatisfaction.

To avoid this mistake, ask 25 or fewer questions in your surveys.

6. Too Many Answer Choices

If there are too many answers to choose from in a multiple choice, ranking, or rating question, respondents will lose focus and the reliability of the answers you collect will decrease. It has been scientifically proven that the average web user can only stay focused on a page for approximately 30 to 90 seconds. That means the time respondents spend reading and answering a single question should not exceed 90 seconds, but 30 seconds or less is preferable.

To avoid this mistake, limit the number of choices provided in the answers to your survey questions. Consider using a research test like Advanced MaxDiff to gather reliable results.

7. Poorly Developed Rating Scales

Rating scales can be interpreted differently by different people. One person’s “poor” experience might be another person’s “awful” experience. Therefore, rating scales should always make it very clear which rating is best and which is worst. Furthermore, the scale should be balanced with each rating at an equally perceived distance from the points before and after it.

To avoid this mistake, create rating scales with a best and worst option and then evenly space other rating choices between the best and worst.

8. Undefined Jargon, Slang or Technical Terms

Don’t assume respondents understand the jargon, slang, or technical terms used in your survey questions and answers. Always define terms or people who are unfamiliar with them will not give you useful and reliable answers to your questions.

To avoid this mistake, ensure your survey questions don’t confuse respondents by defining any terms that could be unfamiliar to them.

9. Missing Answers

As you read in #6 above, you don’t want to make the mistake of offering too many answers to your survey questions, but you also don’t want to leave out important answers. This happens most often when survey writers forget to include ‘other’ or ‘none of these’ answers to multiple choice questions. If these answers are missing, respondents will choose one of the provided answers, even though that answer isn’t accurate. As a result, your data will be inaccurate.

To avoid this mistake, make sure you include catch-all answers to multiple choice questions whenever necessary.

10. Wrong Question Types Used

Just as there are appropriate times to use yes/no questions as you learned in #3, there are also times when other questions types are most useful to get the information you need from respondents.

Use radio buttons or check boxes when you want respondents to choose more than one answer from a list. Use multiple choice questions when you want respondents to choose just one answer from a list. Use matrix questions when you want respondents to rate things, and use open-ended questions when you need to collect deeper insights from respondents. You can also use a variety of advanced question types to allow respondents to order, compare, rank, and more.

To avoid this mistake, make sure you fully understand the types of questions you can ask and when to use each type to get the information you need.

The Takeaway

You can write effective market research surveys, but you must avoid the mistakes described above to do it successfully. Otherwise, you won’t be able to trust the data you collect from respondents. Remember, your business decisions are only as good as the data you base them on. It all starts with market research planning, identifying the right audience, and asking the right questions.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Susan Gunelius
Susan Gunelius, MBA is a 25-year marketing and branding expert and President and CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company. She is the author of 10 books about marketing, branding and social media, and her marketing-related articles appear on top media websites such as Entrepreneur.com and Forbes.com. She is also the Founder and Editor in Chief of WomenOnBusiness.com, an award-winning blog for business women.

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