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National Mail Order Association (NMOA)
Direct Marketing
and Mail Order

The Art of the Questionnaire
by Alan Rosenspan

You about to throw away a direct mail package, and you suddenly realize, "Wait a minute — there’s a real dollar bill stuck in here!"

So you continue reading and find out it’s a questionnaire and the company sending it is offering you a small reward to "thank you in advance" for filling it out.

Uh, oh…what do you do now?

Do you answer all the questions honestly and completely, because after all, they paid for your opinion?

Do you answer in the nicest possible way — because, after all, they were nice enough to trust you with the cash up front?

Or do you quietly pocket the bill, delight in the fact that

you just got something for nothing, and toss away the questionnaire?

We’ll come back to you, and the battle for your conscience in a moment. But first, let’s talk about questionnaires and what makes them such a powerful direct marketing tool.

Do questionnaires really work?

Do they ever!

What’s an average response to one of your direct mail packages?

A typical questionnaire or survey gets response rates as high as 10-20%. And if you’re mailing to customers, and not prospects, you can do even better.

We did a questionnaire for Lucent Technologies that generated a 28% response. We did one for Datawatch that generated over 4,000 responses.

I’ll let you in on a secret -- questionnaires and surveys work so well, they can be used to boost response — even when you don’t care about the answers.

We included a short questionnaire in a direct mail package we did for AT&T. I have to confess we weren’t just interested in their opinions — we wanted to get them to come back to AT&T. Response jumped over 20%.

Where did we put the questionnaire? Right on top of the reply card — and for a very good reason. To answer the questions, a prospect requires a pen or pencil. And isn’t that exactly what they’ll need to fill out their reply card?

What kind of questions should you ask?

The answer is actionable information.

There’s no sense asking a question unless you can actually do something with the answer. And that’s the criteria you must apply

To every question you are considering.

"What would we do differently — if we knew the answer?"

For example, I received a survey from a major financial services firm asking me my age. Unless they are planning to introduce a product or service for my age group — I don’t know why they need it.

And I resent them asking (which probably reveals my age)

The more unnecessary questions you ask, the harder it will be to get someone to answer the really important ones.

I would also avoid questions that may infringe on someone’s privacy, although that will vary according to your industry.

The three questions that most people forget

The first question is a wonderful way to prioritize needs and determine which prospects or customers to contact first. Yet I rarely see it on any questionnaire — except for companies in the travel industry.

They almost always ask, "When do you plan to travel?"

This allows them to follow-up fastest with those people who have the shortest time frame. It also helps to separate the "tire kickers" from those people who have a real need for your product or service.

The second question is, "Do you want someone to contact you?"

Your questionnaire will reach a certain number of prospects or customers who have an immediate need for your product or service.

By all means, give them a chance to hold up their hands.

The third question is, frankly, the one you probably haven’t

thought of.

No matter how smart you are, or how carefully you design the questionnaire, there will be some question you’d never even anticipated.

That’s why it is essential to leave a space for the person to write in comments or suggestions at the end of the questionnaire. You will be amazed at the valuable feedback you’ll receive.

How can you get more people to respond?

There’s only one answer — because they get something in return.

It may be an emotional reward — "They care about my opinion."

It may be a free gift. Our questionnaire for Lucent offered a free Saddle Brief Bag.

It may even be that dollar bill I referred to in the beginning of this article.

But unless you let them know exactly what’s in it for them — they will probably not respond.

BusinessWeek just sent me a brief questionnaire that said, "Our records are incomplete…" Gosh, that’s too bad. But that’s just not a good enough reason for me to spend another moment with it.

By the way, the more valuable the reward, the higher the response. But the more targeted the reward, the more qualified the response.

For example, we did a questionnaire for PictureTel that offered a "Visual Collaboration" Kit that included a "best practices" CD.

We didn’t get as many responses as the Lucent offer — but those that did respond were much better prospects.

What about on-line questionnaires?

They have a number of different advantages over direct mail.

1. You can make it interactive.

People can take your on-line questionnaire or survey and then click to find out (A) how their answers compare with other people (B) their "score," or (C) anything else.

Dale Carnegie Training has a number of fascinating questionnaires on their web site that will help you evaluate your stress level, or measure your communication skills.

Once you complete the questionnaire, you simply click to see your score, and what it means.

2. You can link it directly to your site.

If one of your questions says, "Would you be interested in learning more?" you don’t have to wait for them to send it back.

You can instantly link them to your website or a micro-site you have developed, and bring them along in the sales process that much faster.

3. You can ask more questions.

Particularly if you make it interesting or fun to respond.

One of the advantages of an on-line questionnaire is that the person can’t immediately see how long it is.

Therefore, they may be more willing to continue and complete a longer questionnaire.

4. You may get an even better response.

On-line questionnaires tend to do even better than direct mail questionnaires, provided they are sent to an opt-in list.

One mistake to avoid: don’t just ask questions. Make sure you give respondents a chance to key in additional comments at the end.


11 Ways to Improve Response
to Your Next Questionnaire

1. Make the questionnaire the "hero" of the package, not just another element.

2. Fewer questions are better -- 7 - 11 are ideal. For some reason, odd numbers seem to work better then even numbers.

3. Include a letter to "Thank you in advance." Tell them why their answers are important. Tell them what they get.

4. Have the letter come from someone high-up or important at your company.

5. Give them an offer. It could be entry into a sweepstakes, a premium, or even the fact that you will share the results with them. So they'll know what other people, just like them, are thinking.

6. Include a "Thank you" message on the actual questionnaire.

7. Include the offer on the actual questionnaire. Use a photograph of it, if possible.

8. Make the questions very simple, "Yes" and "No" works best. Asking people to estimate their projected sales revenue for 2003 might be too difficult — and give them a reason to toss it.

9. Make sure you include a space for comments or suggestions. No matter how smart you are, you'll never be able to anticipate every issue. Give them room to write in what they want.

10. If appropriate, reassure them that their answers will be kept confidential and will not be used for solicitation (unless they will be, of course.)

11. Give people a way to respond on-line.


What should you do with the answers?

So you’ve sent out a questionnaire — and you’ve garnered a terrific response. And you’re sitting with a pile of thousands of completed surveys. What should you do with them now?

If you’re like most companies, the only thing you do is tabulate the results, and put them in a report for future generations.

Unfortunately, that’s the worst thing to do.

You need to (1) Let people know you received their answers, and thank them (2) Respond to their comments or suggestions, and (3) Try to fix any problems they’ve reported.

Brandeis University does an excellent job. I was there recently

and I ate at the student cafeteria. (It really took me back. In fact, I think I recognized some of the food.)

They have a questionnaire that students can fill out that says, "How do we rate?" Sounds pretty typical. But Brandeis does something more innovative.

The manager of the cafeteria actually responds to every question and comment, and then posts them on a bulletin board right in front of the cafeteria line.

When a student writes, "How come you stopped serving fried eggs in the morning?" the manager answers, "You were using them as Frisbees, and we got tired of cleaning them off the walls."

So when you’re considering a questionnaire, consider actually using the suggestions and comments, and providing feedback to the respondents.

Should you do a questionnaire?

As you can see, questionnaires can accomplish a number of important functions in a direct marketing campaign.

They can help you identify issues that are important to your prospects; prioritize leads; ensure customer satisfaction; promote interaction; and build better relationships.

Most importantly, they can generate a mountain of leads.

So should you do a questionnaire?

Do you even have to ask?


When he isn’t writing copy, Alan Rosenspan writes articles and speeches. He's posted about 35 of them on his website at

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