Surveying Your Audience Is Crucial, But Give Thought to the Format

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One of the first things Anne Holland and Cassandra Farrington of Marijuana Business Daily did in their new venture was conduct a survey of businesses in the field—their audience. What did people really want from an information company?

"They didn't want to know how to run a dispensary better," Holland said. "They wanted a free daily news website that connected them to the cannabis industry across the country; they desperately needed business and financial benchmarks, and industry numbers. And they wanted a conference, with other mavericks who were running dispensaries." And now it's legal in Canada.

Getting feedback from your audience is crucial but not always easy. I probably have about 10 online surveys sitting in my inbox right now from events I've attended. I enjoyed those events and really want to participate, but deadlines loom and so many other things get in the way.

Here are some ideas for getting audience feedback:

Ask the right questions. When creating the survey questions, ask yourself, "What do you want to know?" For example, do your subscribers want an app version of the brand? Is there price sensitivity? What topics do they want covered? It's important that the surveys are timely (don't contact an expired reader about why they didn't renew two years later). Also keep it brief ("this is a 3-minute survey") and make sure that at least one question is open-ended.

Use breaks at events to talk to attendees. Diane Arseneau, CEO of Zagora, said that events are a great place to get feedback for future initiatives. "Every occasion I do is a good time to get more feedback." It's probably best to have a structure in place to get that feedback—maybe it's pre-scheduled customer meetings, a last-day breakfast or a staff person charged with "just talking" to folks. Unfortunately, post-event surveys don't always capture the conversational expression and discussion that onsite interviews do or even the immediacy that paper surveys can right after a session.

Set up examples. "[Maybe] you have a new research dashboard or learning management platform you'd love to get [your audience's] input on?" asked Samantha Whitehorne of Associations Now. "Set up a kiosk and let them give it a whirl. Or, perhaps, you'd like feedback on a unique room setup you're thinking of trying out next year. Consider staging the room and asking attendees to stop by and tell you what they like and don't like about it—or how it can be improved."

Make it into a contest. SIPA used to have a giant fishbowl that it would use for candy at the annual conference. (Guess whose job it was to get it home?) Make that into a guessing game. I recall former WIS CEO Benny DiCecca suggesting that instead of just saying hi when someone takes a candy—or makes a guess—your staff should ask, "What are you enjoying? What don't you like?" An attendee once approached him with a pained look on his face. "You've run out of Butterfingers," he said.

Use paper surveys but with a prize. "We have two annual events that each bring in over 1,000 attendees," wrote Frank Lessiter of Lessiter Media. "We do three daily paper surveys and usually get about 300 responses to each one. We draw for three free registrations to next year's event. These paper surveys are each 4 pages and probably have 50 questions each. Attendees are asked to rank each speaker, 7 general sessions, 15 classrooms and 24 roundtable sessions. Plus dozens of other questions on facilities, times, dates, trade show, sponsors, next year's topics, the event's 'wow' factor etc."

Give how long it will take, make a pre-event agreement, and acknowledge our inherent lethargy. The National Gallery of Art here in Washington had a late-night event a couple months ago where they asked—beforehand when I was buying my ticket—if I would fill out a survey afterwards. I must have said yes. "Thank you for agreeing to provide some feedback about your experience," they emailed after. "Your perspective is important to our understanding of what worked and what we can improve upon for future events. This survey should take about 10 minutes to complete... We'll send a reminder email a couple of days before the survey closes."

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…