Some of my favorite recurring Saturday Night Live bits are the focus group sketches, where a beleaguered product rep tries fruitlessly to lead a group through a product testing scenario—with great difficulty, because at least one of the testers winds up being patently bananas. (My personal favorite is this Charmin sketch, featuring James McAvoy's frankly flawless Philly accent.)
After watching a few of those sketches, you can imagine why real-life focus groups tend to be pretty small. Even without any over-the-top personalities involved, it's easy for these groups to go off the rails.
So what happens when you want to collect market research at a larger scale? That's where the market research survey comes in. Market surveys allow you to get just as much valuable information as an in-person interview, without the burden of herding hundreds of rowdy Eagles fans through a product test.
What is a market survey?
A market research survey is a questionnaire designed to collect key information about a company's target market and audience that will help guide business decisions about products and services, branding angles, and advertising campaigns.
Market surveys are what's known as "primary research"—that is, information that the researching company gathers firsthand. Secondary research consists of data that another organization gathered and published, which other researchers can then use for their own reports. Primary research is more expensive and time-intensive than secondary research, which is why you should only use market research surveys to obtain information that you can't get anywhere else.
A market research survey can collect information on your target customers':
Preferences, desires, and needs
Values and motivations
The types of information that can usually be found in a secondary source, and therefore aren't good candidates for a market survey, include your target customers':
Consumer spending data
Lots of this secondary information can be found in a public database like those maintained by the Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are also a few free market research tools that you can use to access more detailed data, like Think with Google, Data USA, and Statista. Or, if you're looking to learn about your existing customer base, you can also use a CRM to automatically record key information about your customers each time they make a purchase.
If you've exhausted your secondary research options and still have unanswered questions, it's time to start thinking about conducting a market research survey.
How to design a market research survey
The first thing to figure out is what you're trying to learn, and from whom. Are you beta testing a new product or feature with existing users? Or are you looking to identify new customer personas for your marketers to target? There are a number of different ways to use a marketing research survey, and your choice will impact how you set up the questionnaire.
6 types of market research survey
1. Buyer persona research
A buyer persona or customer profile is a simple sketch of the types of people that you should be targeting as potential customers.
A buyer persona research survey will help you learn more about things like demographics, household makeup, income and education levels, and lifestyle markers. The more you learn about your existing customers, the more specific you can get in targeting potential customers. You may find that there are more buyer personas within your user base than the ones that you've been targeting.
2. Sales funnel research
The sales funnel is the path that potential customers take to eventually become buyers. It starts with the target's awareness of your product, then moves through stages of increasing interest until they ultimately make a purchase.
With a sales funnel research survey, you can learn about potential customers' main drivers at different stages of the sales funnel. You can also get feedback on how effective different sales strategies are. Use this survey to find out:
How close potential buyers are to making a purchase
What tools and experiences have been most effective in moving prospective customers closer to conversion
What types of lead magnets are most attractive to your target audience
3. Customer loyalty research
Whenever you take a customer experience survey after you make a purchase, you'll usually see a few questions about whether you would recommend the company or a particular product to a friend. After you've identified your biggest brand advocates, you can look for persona patterns to determine what other customers are most likely to be similarly enthusiastic about your products. Use these surveys to learn:
The demographics of your most loyal customers
What tools are most effective in turning customers into advocates
What you can do to encourage more brand loyalty
4. Branding and marketing research
The Charmin focus group featured in that SNL sketch is an example of branding and marketing research, in which a company looks for feedback on a particular advertising angle to get a sense of whether it will be effective before the company spends money on running the ad at scale. Use this type of survey to find out:
Whether a new advertising angle will do well with existing customers
Whether a campaign will do well with a new customer segment you haven't targeted yet
What types of campaign angles do well with a particular demographic
5. New products or features research
Whereas the Charmin sketch features a marketing focus group, this one features new product research for a variety of new Hidden Valley Ranch flavors. Though you can't get hands-on feedback on new products when you're conducting a survey instead of an in-person meeting, you can survey your customers to find out:
What features they wish your product currently had
What other similar or related products they shop for
What they think of a particular product or feature idea
Running a survey before investing resources into developing a new offering will save you and the company a lot of time, money, and energy.
6. Competitor research
You can get a lot of information about your own customers and users via automatic data collection, but your competitors' customer base may not be made up of the same buyer personas that yours is. Survey your competitors' users to find out:
Your competitors' customers' demographics, habits, and behaviors
Whether your competitors have found success with a buyer persona you're not targeting
Information about buyers for a product that's similar to one you're thinking about launching
Feedback on what features your competitors' customers wish their version of a product had
How to write and conduct a market research survey
Once you've narrowed down your survey's objectives, you can move forward with designing and running your survey.
Step 1: Write your survey questions
A poorly-worded survey, or a survey that uses the wrong question format, can render all of your data moot. If you write a question that results in most respondents answering "none of the above," you haven't learned much.
You'll find dozens of question types and even pre-written questions in most survey apps. Here are a few common question types that work well for market surveys:
If you're looking for a simple count, like "35% of people said ABC" or "20% of managers and 24% of employees," then there's a variety of question types you can use: Yes/No, checkbox, or multiple choice question type. These types of questions are called categorical or "nominal" questions.
Analysis of categorical-level questions can include counts and percentages—"22 respondents" or "18% of customers," for example—and they work great for bar graphs and pie charts. You cannot take averages or test correlations with nominal-level data.
The simplest survey question—and the only question you'll usually use in a poll—is a Yes/No question. Your survey app likely offers a Yes/No question; otherwise, use the multiple choice question and add Yes and No answers yourself.
Example: Are you a vegetarian? Yes/No
Need more nuance than a Yes/No answer gives? Multiple choice is what you need. You can add as many answers as you want, and your respondents can pick only one answer to the question.
Example: What's your favorite food? Pizza/Pasta/Salad/Steak/Soup/Other
Checkbox questions add the flexibility to select all of the answers that apply. Add as many answers as you want, and respondents aren't limited to just one.
Example: Which types of meat do you like? Beef/Pork/Chicken/Fish/Duck/Other
When question responses have a clear order (like "Income of $0-$25K, $26K-40K, $41K+"), we call them "ordinal" questions. Analysis for ordinal questions is similar to analysis for nominal questions: you can get counts and percentages. You cannot find averages or test correlations with ordinal-level data.
Dropdown questions work much like a multiple choice question—you'll have several different possible answers, and respondents can only choose one option. But you'll need to list the answers in order—perhaps largest to smallest—for ordinal data. You could also use this question to gather demographic data like their country or state of residence.
Example: What's your household income? $0-10k/$11-35k/$36-60k/$61k+
A more unique survey question type that you won't find in every survey app, ranking questions let you list a number of answers, and respondents can rearrange them all into the order they want. That way, they can give feedback on every answer you offer. It's a great way to see which items people like most and least at the same time.
Example: What's your favorite beverage? Rank in order of preference. Milk/Water/Juice/Coffee/Soda/Wine/Beer
For the most precise data and thorough analysis, use the interval or ratio question type. These questions allow you to conduct advanced analysis, like finding averages, testing correlations, and running regression models. You'll use ranking scale, matrix, or text fields in your survey app to ask these types of questions.
Interval questions are often asked on a scale of 1-5 or 1-7, like from "Strongly disagree" to "Strongly agree" or from "Never" to "Always." Ratio questions have a true zero and often ask people to input an actual number into the survey field (like "How many cups of coffee do you drink per day? ____"). You don't really have to worry about the differences between the two types.
The default choice for interval questions, ranking scale questions look like a multiple choice question with the answers in a horizontal line instead of a list. There will likely be 3 to 10 answers, either with a number scale, a like/love scale, a never/always scale, or any other ratio interval. It's a great way to find a more precise measure of people's thoughts than a Yes/No question could give.
Example: On a scale of 1-5, how would you rate our store cleanliness? 1/2/3/4/5
Have a lot of interval questions to ask? Use a matrix if your survey app includes it. You can list a number of questions in a list, and use the same scale for all of them. It simplifies gathering data about a lot of similar items at once.
Example: How much do you like the following: oranges, apples, grapes? Hate/Dislike/Ok/Like/Love
For ratio questions—or direct feedback, or personal data like names—you'll need the textbox question. There's usually a small and large textbox option, so choose the size that's appropriate for the data you're collecting. You'll add the question, and then there will be a blank where your respondent can enter their answer on their own.
Example: How many apps are installed on your phone? Enter a number: __
Step 2: Choose a survey platform
There are a lot of survey platforms to choose from, and they all offer different and unique features. Check out our list of the best online survey apps to help you decide.
Most survey apps today look great on mobile, but be sure to preview your survey on your phone and computer, at least, to make sure it'll look good for all of your users.
If you have the budget, you can also purchase survey services from a larger research agency.
Step 3: Run a test survey
Before you run your full survey, conduct a smaller test on 5-10% of your target respondent pool size. This will allow you to work out any confusing wording or questions that result in unhelpful responses without spending the full cost of the survey. Look out for:
Survey rejection from the platform for prohibited topics
Joke or nonsense textbox answers that indicate the respondent didn't answer the survey in earnest
Multiple choice questions with an outsized percentage of "none of the above" or "N/A" responses
Step 4: Launch your survey
If your test survey comes back looking good, you're ready to launch the full thing! Make sure that you leave ample time for the survey to run—you'd be surprised at how long it takes to get a few thousand respondents.
Even if you've run similar surveys in the past, leave more time than you need. Some surveys take longer than others for no clear reason, and you also want to build in time to conduct a comprehensive data analysis.
Step 5: Organize and interpret the data
Unless you're a trained data analyst, you should avoid crunching all but the simplest survey data by hand. Most survey platforms include some form of reporting dashboard that will handle things like population weighting for you, but you can also connect your survey platform to other apps that make it easy to keep track of your results and turn them into actionable insights.
Before you get started on your next market survey, check out our more in-depth guides:
This article was originally published in June 2015 by Stephanie Briggs. The most recent update was in August 2022.