How to Use Surveys to Build Audiences and Reach Your Customers

Jump start an audience and position yourself as an expert

Jason Shen
Jun 9, 2019 · 20 min read
Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash

So you want to get people interested in something you’re working on — a software product, a book, an event — but you don’t have a big audience, or you just want to make yours bigger. One of the fastest ways to jump start an audience is to run a survey.

People love to know what their peers are doing. Everyone has questions that they are maybe too afraid to ask in a public setting, but want to know the answers to. A great survey can quickly spread across your target community if people are interested in the answers and trust that you’re going to present their data in a thoughtful and interesting way.

But done poorly, you could spend a lot of time spinning your wheels or get accused of having a biased agenda. (Think of the absurdly one-sided surveys run by both Democrats and Republicans).

Over the last few years, I’ve created and launched surveys that have reached thousands of individuals across three very different sectors: Asian American men, tech recruiters and candidates, and collegiate esports teams. I’ve also advised others on this strategy, including journalist and author Allison Yarrow, who is surveying new moms for her second book, “The Mother Load.”

All told, these surveys have reached thousands of people and have helped jump start audiences for personal and professional projects. Here’s how you can use them too.

Disclaimer: While some of what I’m going to share are strategies lifted from user research best practices, this kind of survey work is not meant to replace more rigorous research methods. It is first and foremost a marketing strategy which generates data that is informative, if not perfectly representative.


1. Choose an Audience Segment

Examples of segments that are probably too general:

  • Americans
  • Parents
  • Athletes

Examples of segments that are more targeted:

  • Meal-kit subscribers
  • Moms with kids 0–18 months old
  • Recreational runners

These are groups of people who can easily identify themselves as being in or out of the segment, know other people like them, and are likely are involved with communities based on this identity or interest.

Seriously though, don’t worry about being too specific.

Sometimes, you might even pick an audience segment that’s meant to be a subset of a larger audience. For instance, a survey of Airpod users could be used as a way to reach the broader, but more general, Apple consumers or tech early adopters.

If you have a big audience you’re trying to reach, you can always split it into sections and run a follow-up survey for each part of the audience.

When starting my company Midgame, an esports and gaming analytics company, I realized there was this emerging field of collegiate esports that no one was really talking about. So, I knew that starting a survey for this audience segment would get people to share it with others, since it was probably the first one they had ever seen targeted towards them.


2. Define the Survey Focus

For instance if we’re going after those meal-kit subscribers, we might focus on a theme like preparation and consumption. So the questions might be directed in this way:

  • Are the meals easy to make?
  • How long do they really take to prepare?
  • Do you actually have the right kitchen tools?
  • How good do the meals taste?
  • Do they give enough food / too much food?

I’m not a meal-kit subscriber, so I’m spitballing here, but you can see where this is going. These questions are of course different from a focus on packaging and delivery, or pricing or alternatives to the meal kit (cooking yourself / takeout).

The point is that you can’t make a comprehensive survey that covers every aspect of this group’s life, so picking a focus is important. For the purposes of building an audience, you want to pick a focus area around issues that are controversial, taboo, niche, or otherwise less known.

For the Asian American Man Study, I asked a lot of questions around dating—preferences, dating history, and very specific questions like, “How many times has someone told you ‘I don’t date Asian men’?” These were issues that were top of mind for many guys, and they were also questions they couldn’t find the answers to anywhere else.


3. Write Your Questions

Demographics

For the meal-kit subscribers survey, you might ask how long they’ve been subscribers and what size plan they’re on. For the mom’s with kids under 18 months, it might include if they have family support for childcare, or whether they are a stay-at-home mom versus working outside the home.

Core questions

Controversial

Non-obvious

Platform

Question phrasing

  • If you want to get frequency on something, ask how many times it has happened in the last day, week, or month. When you ask how often something usually happens, people give different, more idealistic answers, than what actually happened.
  • If you need people to give you a number, try to make it a multiple choice question with ranges. Otherwise, later you’re going to have a hell of a time trying to crunch everything by hand. Things like age, income, meals eaten per week, can all be expressed as ranges. You may need to do some pre-research to figure out what an appropriate range might be.
  • If you want to get a sense for someone’s opinion on an issue, try saying “Please indicate how much you agree or disagree with the following statement.” Then include a relatively neutral statement. For the recreational runners, maybe a statement would be, “I enjoy running in competitions,” or “I feel safe running at night.” Then use a five, six, or seven point scale. I usually go with five because it’s easiest: Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Neutral, Agree, Strongly Agree
  • If you want to get a feel for motivation, you can ask people to select from a checkbox list of reasons why they do/like/use something. “Please indicate which of the following reasons for running apply to you personally.”
  • Try to keep the open-ended questions to two or three max. These are hard to analyze and are more to illustrate a particular perspective rather than hard numbers.

There’s a great book for this called “The Complete Guide to Writing Questionnaires,” by David F. Harris, that I highly recommend if this stuff is interesting to you.

Open-ended questions

Some open-ended questions I’ve used to good effect:

  • What do you want people to know about [survey focus or audience segment]?
  • What’s the best thing about being [audience segment]?
  • What is the one thing you’d like to change about [survey focus]?

4. Set Up Your Systems

Think about it like a Kickstarter project: the survey is only interesting if a lot of people take it. I would shoot for a minimum of 100 responses for an audience segment that is generally reachable (e.g. recreational runners vs. NBA players).

Set a deadline

Capture emails

If your survey is on an issue that many consider private, like sexual habits or relationship woes, you might choose to avoid asking for their email on the main survey. Instead, provide a link at the end to another form that’s just collecting emails for “People who want to see results.” This allows them to disconnect their answers while remaining involved.

Add them to your list

Ask people where they found you

These are places you can cultivate later on for promoting survey results. They also are great places in general to market to your audience (since they were able to send people to your survey).

(Optional) Name the survey and make a custom domain

Most of mine have been named something generic (e.g. The State of Tech Hiring Survey), which is meant to imply definitiveness, but is also just because we didn’t have a relevant brand to lead with.


5. Promote the Survey

1. Send an email out to all your friend / relevant contacts

2. Post on your social media channels

3. Add it to your email signature and social media profiles

4. Work your list

  • Instant responses: Thank people for taking the survey and ask them to spread the link, retweet on Twitter, or share on Facebook. Everyone has different sharing preferences, so give them options.
  • Updates: As time goes on, you can take a peek at early results and give a sneak peek to respondents — everyone loves knowing about things before everyone else (This is considered bad form from a scientific research perspective, but remember we are marketing first here!). This then serves as a reminder and motivation to share again. Depending on how long you leave the survey open, you can do this up to two times.
  • Final push: Like a Kickstarter, you get to make one final push of your respondents, asking them to promote before the deadline. If you don’t have a lot of responses, you can announce you’re extending the deadline. In any case, definitely leave the form active for a few days after the official deadline to capture stragglers.

Shoot for at least 200 responses. Less than 100 means something went really wrong in either the survey link, the targeting, or the promotion. Over 500 is wonderful, and over 1000 (especially if you don’t already have a big list) is amazing.


6. Crunch the Numbers

1. Get that data into a spreadsheet

2. Protect the original data

Do all your analysis on the copy of the original sheet. If things look super weird mid-way through your analysis, see if you deleted anything, and, as a last resort, re-copy and paste the original data and start over.

3. Freeze the top row and word wrap the text

4. Create a filter on the data

Every column of answers are referencing the question to its right

5. List out all possible responses for each question in your survey

If there’s an order you think makes sense (No kids, one kid, two kids, three or more kids) then list them in that order. Put the items one column to the left of the data for that chart. Then do the next column to the right lower, so you leave space for the data, and alternate. See the image for reference. You’ll see why we do this in the next step.

6. Generate data for each response

For instance, in the image above, we are trying to calculate the percentage of people who said they were 18 to 24 in our survey out of all respondents.

A simplified version of that would be: People aged 18–24 divided by All respondents.

So that first part —the number of people who gave a particular answer (the numerator) — comes out with this formula:

=COUNTIF(DATACOL$DATA1STROW:DATACOL$DATALASTROW,ANSWERCOLANSWERROW)

Let’s explain each of those elements shall we?

  • =COUNTIF — a formula where you list a range and a value, and the formula counts the number of times that value appears in the range.
  • DATACOL Data column, which is the letter of the column in which the data range you are trying to count is in. In the example above, it is D.
  • $ — Formulas have a special property where if you copy it from one cell to another cell above/below or left/right of the original cell, the formula will adjust relative to its new position. Sometimes this is useful, but sometimes you need an absolute position, so you use the $ symbol to indicate the following element stays put.
  • DATA1STROWData 1st row, which is the number row of the data range you are trying to count begins. In the example above, and in most cases, it will be two.
  • DATALASTROWData last row is the number of the final row in the data range you are counting. In the case above, 664 people took my survey so the final number is “665” since we started not at one but two.
  • ANSWERCOLANSWERROW the letter of the column and the number of the row containing the answer you’re looking for. The way we’ve set this up, it’s C668

The second part, the total number of responses to a given answer, is simpler.

You could just literally go with the number of people who took the survey and call it a day (in our case 664). But if you made questions optional, then some people might not have filled these out at all and so the percentages won’t add up to 100%. You solve that by using a different formula:

=COUNTA(DATACOL$DATA1STROW:DATACOL$DATALASTROW)

  • =COUNTA is a formula that just counts if there’s anything in a given cell range at all. If it’s blank, it counts nothing. If it has anything — a number, a piece of text, etc — it counts one. This makes it great for counting total number of responses.

Inside of the parentheses of COUNTA is the same range we used in the first part. It should look familiar.

So, going back to the example scenario I laid out. Here is the actual formula as it appears inside the cell.

=COUNTIF(D$2:D$665,C668)/COUNTA(D$2:D$665)

Once you have this formula, you can drag it downwards to copy it into the cells below. Those cells should automatically populate with the correct percentages. Remember to use the $ symbols!

You can then also copy a cell and paste it into another cell for your following question, and it should work correctly. Just click the cell once to select it, hit CTRL-C or -C to copy it, and then click on the cell you want to move it to and hit CTRL-V or -V to paste it. Google Sheets and Excel will automatically update the formula for this new column or row.

Don’t directly copy the text of the formula from the bar at the top, or else the formula won’t update and the data will be incorrect.

7. Use the formula to generate all your data

8. Optional — create data segments

This is a more advanced analysis, but it can reveal incredibly interesting results. Maybe you’re doing a parenting survey and you want to see how mothers and fathers differ in the number of diapers changed per week. You then split the data into two parts, and then chart both segments.

Maybe parents tend to change 20 diapers a week on average. But, when you split out moms and dads, it’s more like 30 diapers by moms and ten diapers by dads. That difference becomes an interesting story and factoid, i.e. “Moms change 3x as many diapers as Dad’s”.

So to make this, you use the filter we created in step four. Go into the column you want to separate (for instance, the gender column in the parenting category) and click the green upside down pyramid until a chart comes up. Use Filter by values… Click Clear, then click the response you want to dig into specifically look at.

What will happen is the data you filtered out will disappear. It is just being hidden, so the data at the bottom won’t update. However, you can select all the data that is visible, copy it, create a new sheet, and paste them into a new sheet. You will see that only the filtered results came along. You’ll have to recreate the formula, since the total number of rows is less now.

Luckily, you only need to do it once. Then just make sure to copy and paste the formula for all the answers you want to see.

Make sure to then do the other part of the segment so you can compare (e.g. moms vs dads).

Explore the formulas further with my sample survey.


7. Create the Actual Charts

Some charts are good for creating a benchmark. For instance, the distribution of kids that our parenting survey has. The data might not be exciting, but it’s useful to just understand.

Some charts are useful because they are surprising or make a point. Maybe we discover that 50% of Airpods users are actually using Android smartphones. That might be interesting because you would assume that more of the userbase would have an Apple phone. Or the example of the diaper changing differential between moms and dads.

Here are a few ways to think about your charts:

1. Demographics

If you were smart, you made these questions multiple choice. So, you can now easily make charts that show respondents broken down by race or by number of kids.

Demographics for the Midgame collegiate esports survey

2. General responses

In general, if you have two to four data series (e.g. types of answers — like student/teacher/parent), you can create a column chart where the blocks are upright. If you have five or more data series, or if the names of your data series are long, you’ll need to go with a bar chart, where the blocks go long.

As you can see in the chart above, I asked for years of experience. Since the data labels are short, we can do a column chart.

Bar chart showing common forms of support for a collegiate program

3. Segmented responses

A segmented column chart showing how very serious players train more hours

Tips on making charts

  • Give your chart a good title. It can be simple, like in the case above, “Esports Training Schedule.” Simply describe the data. Or, it can be more interpretive, like “Very Serious Gamers Train More Hours Than Casuals.”
  • If the data is not obvious, try to include the original question as a subtitle or somewhere in the chart. Both Google Charts and Keynote allows you to create subtitles.
  • Include the data values in the chart. This way, others referencing the data can actually get real numbers; they don’t have to just eyeball it based on where the bar is against the background.
  • Sometimes, you will need to rewrite an answer to make it easier to understand/fit the space in the chart. In the Asian Man study, I sometimes shortened answers like “Asian men do not get adequate representation in media,” to “Lack media representation.” You are the expert here; don’t be afraid to summarize where it makes sense. Just be ready to explain if someone asks, and try to make sure your summary doesn’t deviate from the intent of the answer.
  • Pick a set of colors for your chart. Use these same three to six colors across all your charts so they have a unified feeling.
  • When doing a segment chart, make sure you include a legend so people know which color means what.
  • Make sure to include your survey’s name and a link to its website, or your company’s site, or your name at the bottom, so that you get credit for this data. Expect that people are just going to embed the chart on their site or post it on social media, so make sure there’s a way for people to find you.
  • Use column charts if you have a few answers and the answers are short in length (few words).
  • Use bar charts if you have a lot of answers and/or the answers are long.
  • Use pie charts sparingly, since people struggle to understand how to compare the segments. Donut charts (where there’s a hole in the middle) can make it easier, but as you will find, making room for all the data values can be annoying.
  • Line and area charts can be good if you are tracking data over time (Revenue or user numbers by year).

8. Promote the Charts

You can post the charts directly on social media. Make sure to space these out so you can get traffic on each one separately and start conversations.

You can put the charts on your company’s site.

And you can also create a PDF with additional data that you share if people give you their email. With something like Mailchimp, you can attach a link to download the PDF of the survey results as part of the welcome email.

Don’t forget to share the data with your list, and make sure to ask them to share the results as well.

Congratulations, you’ve done it. You now have proprietary data on a topic. This makes you an expert and provides you with a built-in list of people who likely trust you and want to learn more from you. If you have some compelling enough findings, you could even use this as the basis of an op-ed or published piece.

Make sure to reference this research in future work — you’ve earned it. And, consider doing a follow up survey down the road on something you didn’t cover initially, or that digs into a particular area you could only give surface treatment for.

Better Marketing

Marketing advice & case studies to help you market…

Jason Shen

Written by

Serial entrepreneur & Asian American advocate. Co-Founder and CEO of Midgame.gg - esports analytics co. TED, Etsy, Stanford, Y Combinator alum. BOS ✈ SF ✈ NYC.

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