How Online Surveys Work

By: Dave Roos

Marketers use surveys to learn consumers' preferences.
Marketers use surveys to learn consumers' preferences.
Marilyn Conway/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

In the business world, an untested idea is a bad idea. Before spending millions of dollars designing, manufacturing and marketing a product, companies first have to figure out whether anyone even wants to buy it. That process is called market research.

Market research is big business. American companies spend billions of dollars each year on focus groups, product testing, interviews and surveys -- all in an effort to determine which logo is the catchiest, which flavor of potato chip is the most addictive and which pop song will be the next big hit [source: The Huffington Post].


To save time and money, many companies are turning to online market research. Surveys, in particular, can easily be conducted online or over e-mail. The cost of a 200-person, e-mail survey is $2,500 to $5,000. To get the same number of responses from a snail mail survey would cost between $5,000 and $7,000, and phone surveys can run as high as $15,000 [source; Yahoo! Small Business].

As an incentive for consumers to fill out online surveys, companies offer them rewards. At Web sites like e-Rewards and MySurvey, consumers either earn money or points for each survey they fill out and submit. Those points can be redeemed for rewards such as discounts on products, free airline miles or gasoline gift cards.

Online surveys with rewards are a potential win-win situation for companies and consumers. The company gets valuable market research from a targeted survey audience, and the consumer is paid for his time through discounts and freebies on products he likes.

The only problem with rewarding consumers for taking online surveys is that it gives them the incentive to cheat. The more surveys you fill out, the more points you get. So people get creative: They randomly answer survey questions as quickly as possible, establish multiple e-mail addresses to answer the same survey five or six times, or lie about their demographic (a white male says he's a black female, for example) to participate in surveys for which they otherwise wouldn't qualify [source: Frost & Sullivan].

In this HowStuffWorks article, we'll explore the ins and outs of online surveys: how they fit into overall market research plans, how reward Web sites work, and what can be done to make online survey results more reliable.

Let's start with a crash course in market research 101.

Online Surveys and Market Research

A marketing team typically reviews survey responses.
A marketing team typically reviews survey responses.
Purestock/Getty Images

Companies invest in market research because it gives them hard data upon which to base their important decisions [source: Business Week Buyer Zone]. That data can come in the form of objective numbers (how many times the average consumer buys popcorn each year) or subjective opinions (what each consumer's ideal popcorn flavor would taste like). Once collected, the data is analyzed for buying trends and other patterns of consumer behavior that can help the company make informed decisions about how to design and market its product.

There are two basic stages when conducting market research: primary and secondary. Oddly, secondary research comes first. Secondary research uses existing sources to find information about the type of product a company wants to sell and the current market for that product [source: Business Week Buyer Zone]. Those existing sources could be newspaper and magazine articles, white papers by industry experts or government statistics.


After a company has gathered all of the existing market research available, it's ready to do primary, or original, research. Primary research yields data that the company generates through its own focus groups, interviews and surveys.

There are two kinds of primary research: qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative research is more in-depth and focuses on getting answers to particular questions and concerns. Examples of qualitative research are focus groups and one-on-one interviews. Quantitative research uses surveys to collect large amounts of data that can be analyzed statistically. Statistical analysis is useful for identifying trends and predicting future buying habits [source: Business Week Buyer Zone].

Surveys, therefore, are an example of quantitative primary research. A survey uses a list of set questions to generate and capture consumer responses. Those responses can either be recorded by the consumer himself or by a researcher asking the questions [source:]. Surveys are either conducted in-person, over the phone, by mail, e-mail or through a Web site [source:].­

Consumers who respond to a survey are called the survey panel. In statistical terms, the larger and more targeted the survey panel, the more accurate the results are going to be. If you know that your target customer demographic is women between the ages of 25 and 50, you want to survey as many women in that demographic as possible and rule out everybody else. Only then will you get an accurate assessment of what women in that age group generally think about your product.

There are many ways to find survey panels. Phone calls are a popular method ("Is there a man in the house between the ages of 18 and 25?"), as is something called the "mall intercept," where people walking through a mall are stopped and asked if they would participate in a survey [source: American Marketing Association]. Postal mail is another way to distribute surveys. In this article, we'll focusing on surveys taken online.

Online Surveys Advantages & Disadvantages

Surveys often ask information about service quality.
Surveys often ask information about service quality.
David Gould/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

The Internet and e-mail make it faster and cheaper to develop survey panels. It costs significantly less to send e-mail surveys than to make phone calls or send postal mail surveys.

Also, e-mail has a higher incidence rate than other survey methods [source: Business Week Buyer Zone]. The incidence rate is the percentage of people who actually respond to a survey. People are more likely to respond to online or e-mail surveys because they can finish them on their own time, unlike phone surveys, and e-mails are relatively painless to fill out and send back, unlike snail mail [source: Yahoo! Small Business].­


Another advantage of e-mail surveys is that a company can use its own Web site to generate contacts [source:]. Many companies already have an option for customers to sign up to receive e-mail newsletters and other electronic notifications. A company can use that e-mail contact list to send surveys to targeted existing customers.

Available software programs can help a company quickly create and distribute online surveys. A program called Listen Up! includes pre-made survey templates, as well as tips on writing your own survey, list and delivery management tools, and tracking and reporting.

Surveys can be powerful, yet subtle promotional tools for the product or service in question [source:]. For example, by asking questions about the positive attributes of a product ("How important is Coke's great taste?") you can plant a positive association in the consumer's mind. And, by polling existing customers, you can remind them of a product that they already like, but might have forgotten about. Until now, of course.

The major disadvantage of online surveys is survey fraud. The reliability of survey statistics depends on something called panel integrity. There are several security measures that a company can use to decrease survey cheaters and maintain high panel integrity:

  • Invitation-only. A consumer must receive an e-mail invitation to participate in a survey. This gives the company a chance to verify the address and assure that the same name and contact information isn't already assigned to another e-mail address in the system.
  • Require mailing address. Ask for a mailing address to send reward points and coupons. Once again, if the same mailing address comes up for multiple e-mail accounts, you might have a cheater.
  • Minimum time frame. Set a minimum time for completing an online survey. This cuts down on cheaters who fly through the survey just randomly answering questions.
  • Block "straight line" answers. Have the software automatically purge any surveys that come back with the same letter or number chosen for every question.
  • Block IP addresses. If anyone is caught cheating, block his or her IP address from submitting any future surveys. It's also wise to limit the amount of surveys that can be submitted from any one IP address to cut down on multiple submissions.
  • Demographic consistency. Start the survey with straight, demographic questions. The next couple of questions should be demographic-profiling questions that verify a person's sex, age, income level, etc. If the answers to the demographic profiling questions don't jibe with the earlier answers, the user should be blocked.
  • Open-ended questions. Include at least one short-answer, essay type question that can be analyzed for thoughtfulness. Cheaters won't take the time to answer an open-ended question multiple times with significantly different responses [sources: Yahoo! Small Business and Frost & Sullivan].

Now let's take a look at Web sites that reward you for taking online surveys.

Web Sites that Offer Online Surveys

Some online survey sites offer members participation points.
Some online survey sites offer members participation points.
Aagamia/Iconica/Getty Images

There are dozens of Web sites -- some that cater only to Australians, others only to Americans, etc. -- that offer variations on the same idea: rewarding consumers for filling out online surveys.

Here's how most of these sites work:


  1. Register at the Web site and supply basic contact and login information
  2. Receive an e-mail with a link to a page where you supply more detailed demographic information: address, sex, race, marital status, education level, employment info, etc.
  3. Then you receive periodic e-mails with links to surveys that are matched to your demographic information. Some sites allow you to specify how many surveys you want to receive in a week
  4. Each survey takes an average of 10-20 minutes to complete
  5. You receive a reward based on how long it takes to complete the survey. At e-Rewards, an hour-long survey can pay $29 and a 20-minute survey $6
  6. If it turns out you don't qualify for the survey (you don't have a pet, and the survey is for dog-owners), you might get a partial reward
  7. Cash in your points for discounts and coupons on products and services [information from source:].

Different Web sites have different reward systems. Some send you an actual check for real money. Others allow you to accrue pretend money or points that can be cashed in for rewards. Then there's the sweepstakes system, in which each person who submits a survey is eligible for a daily or weekly grand prize.

Some Web sites, like e-Rewards, are pure survey sites, while a Web site like MyPoints allows you to earn points by shopping online at affiliated businesses like iTunes and, using your MyPoints credit card, playing online games and taking surveys.

The benefits of all of these sites are modest. Despite what some of them advertise, you can't "Work from home!" by taking surveys and expect to earn any significant income. You can, however, add some extra free miles to your frequent-flier account or get a couple free rentals from Blockbuster without investing much time or effort [source:].

On the next page, we'll talk about survey sites that are geared at the kid market.

Online Surveys for Kids

SmartGirl surveys teen girls weekly. More and more online surveys are targeting kids.
SmartGirl surveys teen girls weekly. More and more online surveys are targeting kids.
Image courtesy SmartGirl

Adults aren't the only ones with valuable opinions. There are more than 33 million teens and tweens in the United States, according to Market American girls spent $80 billion in 1998 alone [source: Selling to Kids]. Companies that want to gather important market research about how kids think, what they like and (most importantly) what they buy have begun to create special online surveys especially for kids.

Just like online surveys for adults, kids surveys can either be free or paid. Many of the larger paid survey sites like Survey Bounty have links to market research firms that pay kids cash to complete surveys. Some surveys are for kids as young as 13 years old, while others have a minimum age of 16. It's typical for kids survey sites to require a parental permission letter to participate, especially for kids under 16.


Like the adult versions of online survey site sites, some survey sites for kids compensate teens with discounts, coupons and freebies on their favorite products and services, rather than paying them directly in cash. Others are completely unpaid.

At sites like SmartGirl, an unpaid opinion and review site for tween and teenage girls, kids are encouraged to take surveys, post advice and share opinions and ideas on a wide variety of topics. Here's an example of a SmartGirl survey sponsored by the Young Adult Library Services Association to gauge how interested teenage girls are in reading books.

Researchers have found that young women in particular are much more likely to share honest opinions and reveal private thoughts through anonymous online surveys and discussion boards than in real-world interviews [source: Selling to Kids]. Companies that establish partnerships with kids' online survey sites can gather useful market research about the types of products that this trend-hopping and fickle generation is most likely to buy, even three or four years down the road.

Free Online Surveys

Many free online survey sites reward participants with points for sharing their opinions.
Many free online survey sites reward participants with points for sharing their opinions.
© Photographer: Jason Stitt | Agency: Dreamstime

While you won't receive cash for completing free online surveys, you may receive discounts or free products and service. To get participants, some free online survey sites "pay" participants with discounts and freebies.

Some of the most popular online survey sites that don't pay participants directly in cash are e-Rewards and MyPoints.


Why participate in free Internet surveys if you don't get paid? Maybe you simply like to share your opinion. Or maybe you like the idea of helping companies improve their products. By participating in free online surveys, you get to play the role of tastemaker, influencing the look, feel and functionality of new and existing products.

From the perspective of the company creating the survey, one significant market research advantage of free Internet surveys is that you know that your respondents aren't solely in it for the money. People who choose to take free surveys online are more likely to be customers who actually care about the product or service in question.­

When respondents are paid to complete surveys, there's pressure to complete as many surveys as possible in the shortest amount of time. That encourages people to cheat on surveys or simply not take time to generate thoughtful answers. With free online surveys, you have the option of not only asking short, quantitative questions (yes or no, rate this from 1 to 5, et cetera), but also open-ended qualitative questions that often provide the most actionable results [source:].

A good way for companies to quickly survey customers for free is to add short poll questions to their Web site. Here are some suggestions for improving market research through online polls:

  • Use the same poll question multiple times over the course of a year to identify opinion or buying trends
  • Come up with questions that are fun to answer, but also address issues of buying behavior, design options, trends and shifting tastes
  • Try to write poll questions that address different audience and customer demographics [source: Yahoo! Small Business].

On the next page, find out about survey Web sites that pay you to take surveys.

Paid Online Surveys

While you won't get rich taking paid online surveys, you might make some extra cash.
While you won't get rich taking paid online surveys, you might make some extra cash.
© Photographer: Janpietruszka | Agency: Dreamstime

When conducted by a reputable market research company, paid online surveys can be an easy way to make a little extra cash in your spare time. These companies used to seek consumer opinions in the mall or by phone.

Many of these market research companies are now relying on the Internet to meet their survey needs. However, if you type "paid online surveys" into a search engine like Google, you'll get hundreds of pages operated by middlemen advertising "get rich quick" schemes [source:].­


Many companies use online surveys as part of their overall market research efforts. Every product or service that a company sells has a target demographic. For example, if a company sells video games, its target demographic might be young men between the ages of 10 and 25. When conducting market research, the company will look for respondents who fit that target demographic.

The same holds true for paid online surveys. Your survey responses are only valuable to the company if you fit their target demographic. It's true that you can get paid up to $50 or even $100 for completing an online survey, but that's if you fit a highly valued, very targeted demographic. Unfortunately, you can't fit each and every demographic, so big-money paid Internet surveys will most likely be few and far between [source:].

You're unlikely to "get rich quick" by taking paid online surveys, but if you happen to fall into a prized demographic, there is the potential to make a reasonable amount of money participating in paid focus groups and one-on-one interviews -- both online and off.

Many "paid" online survey sites don't actually pay cash per completed survey, but compensate participants with coupons, discounts, freebies and sweepstakes entries. For example, e-Rewards awards members receive "cash" for completing surveys. Members can exchange the cash for certain prizes like frequent flyer miles, free movie rentals or magazine subscriptions.

On the next page, we'll talk about some of the dangers of paid surveys.

Dangers of Paid Online Surveys

Online surveys present dangers from potential scam artists.
Online surveys present dangers from potential scam artists.
© Photographer: Dimitry Romanchuck | Agency: Dreamstime

There are several dangers associated with paid online surveys, both for the companies that administer them and the people who take them.

For companies, one of the major dangers of paid online surveys is that you are giving participants an incentive to lie and cheat in order to take more surveys [source: Selling to Kids]. People might lie on their demographic profile to qualify for more surveys. They might sign up with the same company under multiple e-mail addresses to maintain several different profiles. They might rush through multiple-choice surveys randomly checking answers in order to complete the survey in the least amount of time possible.


By lying and cheating on online surveys, participants will make more money, but the company will end up with useless market research.

For participants, it's important to realize that paid online surveys have become a haven for Internet scam artists. Participants in online surveys should be aware that there are many unscrupulous middlemen out there who purport to sell proprietary lists of online survey companies that will help you "Earn $3000 a month!" while "Working from home!" Many of these middlemen charge a registration fee for accessing their lists, which are in fact freely available through simple a Google search.

Another danger of signing up with a paid online survey Web site is that the site may turn around and sell your contact information to spammers. Even if you trust an online survey site's privacy policy, it's always smart to register with a separate e-mail account from free Webmail sites like Yahoo! or Hotmail.

Here are some tips for avoiding paid survey scams and middlemen:

  • Don't sign up with any Web site that requires a fee for accessing paid online surveys.
  • Look for privacy statements and disclaimers; read them carefully.
  • The harder a Web site defends itself as "not a scam," the more likely it's a scam.
  • Search for posts about the company on sites like and
  • Trust your gut; if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.


The biggest danger of paid online survey sites is simply spending a lot of time on an activity that pays very little in return. It's smart to think of paid online surveys as a hobby that could earn you a little extra pocket money, but don't expect it to replace your day job.

For more information about online surveys and related topics, check out the links on the next page.