Tip #6: 10 Ways to Write More Engaging Surveys

In the early days of online research, I ran what we would today call a research community for Kraft Foods. With the exception of Communispace, I may well have been the only other person doing this sort of thing. How I got into it has to wait for another time--let’s just say that it was the wild west of online research and I have Bradley Brown, who at that time was with Kraft, to thank for the inspiration to try the first one. Bit of fun trivia. It was inspired by evaluating ideas for a daily video series for newscasts that was hosted by Rachael Ray, before she had really achieved celebrity status.

This “community” and those that followed were over the next several years were learn by doing experiences. Early on, one of our greatest insights was that when we wrote the surveys in the voice of the community manager--the voice and face of the community--we achieved dramatically higher response rates--between 60 and 70%. In addition, community member retention rates went up.

We had found our voice for this community. And that would influence our survey writing from then to the present day. At a high level, it has meant shifting the survey language from the corporate-speak, passive language most surveys use to an authentic, personality-laden voice that fits the brand and the target audience. It means turning what is traditionally a formal interrogation into a pleasant conversation. This is one of the things we do well. So, in no particular order, here are 10 ways to find your survey voice.

1. Write the survey to a specific person.

You are more than likely up on personas and their use in marketing. When you write copy with a specific, well fleshed-out persona in mind, then you are better able to make it more personal and engaging. So create a persona profile of the target respondent. Go beyond the survey specs and use your imagination imbue your respondent with enough traits that you can picture her in real life.

2. Incorporate the brand or your own voice

Depending on whether the survey is branded or blind, match the voice of the survey to either the brand sponsor or your own company. This is where I have to admit to the advantage of being TripleScoop--fun and informality come with the description. I have a bit more freedom to use my true voice--because TripleScoop’s brand reflect my personality, more than I like to admit sometimes. It can be a bit tougher when you do work for a highly corporate brand. But read the copy on their website and in their advertising. Divine out the personality and language the marketing department and advertising people imbue the brand with. Is it fun and edgy, or warm yet professional? Is the brand authoritative, or earthy? As you read copy, do some free association in writing down phrases and words that are used that reflect the brand personality, then see what other words and phrases they inspire. These will serve you well in writing questions.

3. Talk it out

Many times I am trying to write a question and it comes out awkward and I stumble along. When this happens, I find it to be a good practice to forget about the wording and just ask someone else, out loud, the question I am aiming for. Don’t worry about getting the detailed wording just right, stumble a bit but ask it out loud. Not only might you surprise yourself in saying it just how you want it to come out (this happens about half of the time for me) or the person you are asking it of may say, “So what you are asking me is…” and say it exactly right. Tip: Turn on your voice recorder. I can’t tell you how many times I hear articulated perfectly, and then can’t reconstruct it on paper.

4. Use the Active Voice, not the Passive

The Passive Voice is where the subject is acted on by the object via a verb. It is actually written backwards, and thus slows the reader down. And it is not how we normally talk when engaged in a conversation. An example might be: Were you to shop for a streaming device, please select which of the following features would be of importance to you. The Active Voice is how we usually talk with friends. It is more direct. It is the subject acting on the object. What is important to you in shopping for a streaming device?

Moving questions to the active voice is a bit harder than straight up statement. You will find it easier to use the active voice writing instructions, descriptions, and answer choices.

Check out this great video lesson on using the active voice versus the passive on YouTube.

5. Read, read, and read some more

When you read something well written, it is like practicing writing. You tend to assimilate the writing style of stuff you read and then reflect it in your writing. (This is why, when you are writing a survey, I definitely recommend avoiding reading Dr. Seuss.) Identify the blogs, books and other content you love to read. More than likely it is written well and thawt’s why you enjoy it. Read it for the enjoyment, but also read it when you are stuck on a survey. It should help you get in the groove and find your voice. This works for other things as well.

Before I get on important conference calls, especially if I am debriefing a client, I will listen to a few minutes of of my favorite podcasters, often Chuck and Josh of Stuff You Should Know. It gets my voice in the groove.

6. Read Out Loud

Read out loud your questions when editing and ask yourself--is this how I (or the brand personality) talks? How does it sound? Conversational or stilted? Reading it out loud to someone else also helps--as they will know whether the word flow and sentence structure obfuscates your question or keeps it clear. A third party is always a good idea when editing. (As researchers we should inherently know the value of a third party, right?)

7. Just Write

Get yourself in the mood, by reading, imagining the target audience as a person, and then just thrown down the questions and answers. Don’t worry so much about getting it just right--just write. If you can’t think of all the answers, leave blanks to come back to. And don’t worry about the order of things yet. Just go nuts and free-write. Don’t edit yourself. Then go back over it and edit like crazy. And ask yourself, is this the voiceIt’s always easier to edit than to create. Ask other people: “What’s my voice? What do I sound like?” Take notes of the answers you get.

8. Less is More

Edit without mercy. Give no quarter to the unnecessary or frivolous. Think Twitter and keep your questions to less than 128 characters. Use short, blunt words--those Germanic words--in place of those Latin-based, fancy words. And by all means, double-tap any industry jargon or marketing buzzwords. Edit so that it reads like Hemingway. If in doubt, cross it out.

9. Use I not We

Nothing is quite so off-putting as to have someone speak to you as if they are a group--”We would like to understand your reasons for purchasing different brands of pants.” The “we” connotes a faceless, personality-free monolith of a corporation. Having a conversation with a corporation is akin to getting a root canal. Seldom do you have a real conversation with a corporation--it’s usually a formal communication. But, talking a person--”you” and “I”--that’s where conversations live.

10. Don’t Repeat Yourself

I have a friend who in conversation repeats himself. He belabors points. I give him the benefit of the doubt, or special dispensation, because he is an attorney by trade. But the repetition gets old fast. I can’t tell you how many surveys I have seen that are just as repetitive. If you read the questions out loud, sometimes it sounds almost ridiculous as you seemingly harp on instructions. Or start each of several questions in a row with the exact same clause. In conversation, unless you are my attorney friend, you don’t hammer points home. You naturally vary things up.

I am always available to help you find your voice as you take your survey game up another level. Depending on the extent of the help needed, that help may be freely provided, or there might be a reasonable charge (for more extensive help). Regardless, you got this.