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Bernadette Wright

About Bernadette

Choosing and Using the Right Online Survey Tool

Image: It's important to choose the right online survey tool.

It's important to choose the right online survey tool.

Which online survey tool is right for you?

The right online survey tool provides many powerful features that can make your survey better. Yet, many online surveys don’t take advantage of those features. It’s like buying a smartphone and only using it to make phone calls.

A hastily built online survey may get you some survey results. However, you may end up with people not answering your questions in the way that you expected. Or, you may not be able to analyze the data in the way you had planned. In many cases, these problems can be avoided by using more of the commonly available online survey features.

Numerous online survey applications offer similar basic features. My current favorites are SurveyMonkey and SurveyGizmo, but there are many others. These applications provide various plans, at a range of prices and features. The best plan for you depends on what features would benefit your specific survey. It’s like choosing a smartphone – do you just want to talk on the phone, or do you want to listen to music, play games, and take great photos?

Online Survey Features to Know

Below are four features that have been useful in my experience helping nonprofit organizations to build and administer online surveys. By using the right features, you can save participants time and increase chances that your survey results will be useful.

Skipping Questions That Don’t Apply

If you ever complete surveys, you may have come across “if” questions, such as:

  • If you attended our annual picnic, what suggestions do you have to improve it?
  • If you did not attend our annual picnic, why not?

The problem with these questions is that people like to be helpful. If you ask a question, then folks will give you an answer even if the question doesn’t apply. You might want people to answer the first question only if they attended your picnic, but people who weren’t there might answer the question anyway. That makes your survey data harder to interpret without doing extra analysis to separate out the answers from people who attended.

Another problem with “if” questions is that they take longer for participants to complete, because they have to read questions that may not apply to them. The longer your survey is, the less likely people are to complete it.

Online surveys let you avoid the problems of “if” questions by using a feature called skip logic. Skip logic lets you set up your survey so that respondents see only the questions that apply to them. You can ask the question: Did you attend our annual picnic (yes/no)? Then, you can set the survey to skip the question for those who attended. That increases data accuracy and saves respondent time.

Tracking Survey Response

Tracking survey responses is important when you want to:

  • Send follow-up reminders to people who have not yet responded
  • Send incentive gifts to people who completed the survey. (For more information, see my article How to Increase Survey Responses.)
  • Match data from more than one survey completed by the same person, such as surveys before and after they participate in your program

Using custom variables, you can create unique survey links for each person to track survey response. For example, you may have a spreadsheet with names, email addresses, and other information for people who you want to survey. You can create a survey ID for each person and use that ID to create a unique link to your survey for each person, as in the table below. When you download your survey results, you’ll be able to see who’s responded and who hasn’t by the unique survey links.

Participant Name

Survey ID

Survey link

Hugo Green P01 www.<surveyname>/P01
Dee Mustard P02 www.<surveyname>/P02
Sam Brown P03 www.<surveyname>/P03

Example spreadsheet for tracking survey response

You can track results in this way and still protect respondents’ anonymity by keeping the data on who has responded and who hasn’t in a separate file from the survey answers.

Giving each person a unique survey link avoids the problem of duplicate surveys from the same person. Because each person has a unique survey link, a person can complete the survey only once.

You can also use the survey IDs to match survey responses to other non-identifying information you may have about participants. That lets you analyze survey responses by data available from other sources. Combining survey data with existing data lets you avoid asking respondents to repeat information you already have, saving participants time. For example, say your organization provides workshops on various topics, and you track which workshops each person has taken. In that case, your survey doesn’t need to ask them which workshop they took, because you already know. Instead, you can match responses to workshops taken when you analyze the survey data, using a non-identifying survey ID that you create.

Allowing Multiple Responses (or Not)

Another important thing you’ll need to decide as you build your online survey is whether or not to allow multiple responses from the same computer.

If you expect to receive surveys from multiple people using the same computer, such as students sharing a computer in a classroom or members of the same household, then you’ll want to allow multiple responses. If you don’t make sure your survey allows multiple responses, people may not be able to complete your survey.

In situations when each respondent will have their own computer, it’s a good idea to only allow one response per computer. That will avoid duplicate responses from the same person, which creates extra work to identify and remove duplicate surveys that could bias the results.

Validating Responses

No matter how careful you may be in writing well-worded survey questions, people may not always answer in the way that you expected. Using online survey technology to validate responses helps you avoid that problem.

You can validate responses to certain questions by requiring a particular response format. For example:

  • When asking “how many children do you have?” you can require that the answer be a whole number.
  • For a question that asks respondents to select their three favorite kinds of cookies from a list, you can limit the number of flavors a person can check to three.
  • For an open-ended question where you want a short answer, you can limit the number of characters that a respondent can enter.

You can also specify what message people get when their answer does not meet the required format (e.g., “Please enter a whole number.”) That makes your survey instructions clearer, so that your survey results are more useful.

Get Your Money’s Worth

Get your money’s worth from your next online survey. Consider which of the features detailed here would benefit your survey. Choose a survey platform and plan that provides those features. You can browse the help pages of the platform you choose to learn more about the available features and how to use them. You might also consider working with a consultant who can assist you with fielding your online survey.


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