How Online Surveys Work

By: Dave Roos

Online Surveys Advantages & Disadvantages

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.