"If you're going to ask me to take seven minutes out of my day to fill out your lengthy questionnaire, I expect you to take seven minutes to explain how you're using my data to improve [my] experience... Otherwise, stop sending them."
1. Offer an incentive.
How would you like to get responses from 38 percent--even 50 percent--of your survey recipients? I've had such success from attendee and exhibitor surveys sent via email and, for a survey sent via postal mail to current and prospective association members, even got a nine percent response rate.
When is the last time you've heard of a direct mail response rate higher than one percent, let alone nine?
Offering an incentive is a key factor in getting such great response rates and doing so doesn't have to break the budget. Offer to automatically enter anyone who completes a survey into a drawing for a gift certificate, or do a drawing for free registration or booth space at your next event. How about a free year of membership for one lucky winner? Considering offering multiple drawings to improve the odds of winning for large survey groups.
I've found offering a $100 SuperCertificate from GiftCertificates.com to be an incentive that works well for just about any audience. It can be exchanged for gift certificates to hundreds of major retailers, restaurant chains, hotels, and other merchants. Now if only you could generate such high ROI from every $100 in your marketing budget!
2. Give a clear deadline.
There's always something more pressing, and you can be sure completing your survey is not going to rise to the top of most people's priority list. Even after you've piqued their attention with a prize drawing, be sure to give them a deadline so they don't put it off indefinitely.
I like to send post-event surveys on the second day that most folks are back in the office. The experience is still fresh in their minds and they will have had a full day to catch up on things that piled up while they were away. Once they receive the survey, I then like to give them 10 days to complete it. This helps get responses from anyone who may have additional travel or time off that prevents them from returning to the office right away. Plus, it gives you time to space out a couple of reminders ...
3. Send your initial request, followed by two reminder emails.
In your first message to survey recipients, be sure to thank them for attending or exhibiting at your event. Emphasize that you value their opinions and will use their feedback to improve their experience at future events. Outline your incentive offer, state the deadline, and then include a link to your survey at the end of the message.
Of course, despite your well-crafted request, even those with the best of intentions are likely to forget about completing your survey. So remind them not once, but twice. Assuming you're giving them 10-days, send your first reminder about five to seven after the initial request. Then, send a final "last chance to enter survey drawing" reminder the day before your deadline. You should see a big jump in responses following both of those reminders.
4. Keep it short.
The key to getting a high number of completed surveys is to keep it short. I'm not talking two or three questions short, but keep it below 18 questions max. Don't request information that you've already gathered from registration form, but do be sure the last question asks for contact information so that you can notify that person if they win the drawing. Just emphasize that there answers will be kept confidential.
5. Include a time estimate.
Ask some colleagues not involved in designing the survey to see how long it takes them to complete it. Then include that time estimate in your introduction. If it takes more than five to 10 minutes to complete, it's too long.
6. Ask both a positive and a negative catchall question.
Have you ever taken a customer survey that didn't provide an opportunity to offer the feedback that you really wanted to give? Perhaps you experienced a problem or had a suggestion and found, after spending several minutes choosing from pre-programmed answers, that there was never a place for you to comment on the thing that mattered to you most.
Because you "don't know what you don't know," it's important to provide at least a couple of open-ended questions where your survey takers can provide feedback on areas not addressed elsewhere. Two must-have questions that I suggest are: "What was your favorite experience at the event?" and "What can we do better to improve the next event?"
Yes, it will take additional time to read through these comments, but the extra effort will likely provide some gems of advice that you would not have received otherwise.
7. Ask attendees what industry-specific problem keeps them up at night.
Here, you'll likely identify a few key patterns, trends, and common problems facing the industry that can be extremely useful in developing future program content (include these in your call for presentations) and marketing messages.
8. Ask for a testimonial.
For your last open-ended questions, once you've given your survey takers an opportunity to express their like and dislikes, take this opportunity to gather testimonials that you can use in future marketing materials. Do this for both attendees and exhibitors and be sure to explicitly ask for permission to publish their name, title, and organization—should their quote be published.
9. Send it to a test group first.
Before distributing your survey to the masses, send if first to a small test group of five to 10 percent of your list. Read through the initial responses to see if anything the recipients find confusing comes to light. This gives you an opportunity to adjust the wording of any questions or predefined answers before sending it to the rest of your audience.
For example, if you ask a multiple choice question and include an "other" line for a write-in answer, you may discover that a lot of folks are choosing "other" and writing the same thing. You can then add it as a new choice for the question before sending the survey to the larger group.
Just be sure not to change the overall structure of your survey or the results from the test group won't sync with the revised survey sent that the remainder of your group receives.
10. Provide a post-survey update.
Within a month of closing your survey, send an update to everyone who completed it. Share any findings they may find interesting, as well as those things that you hope to add or change at future events as a result of their feedback. This is a great way to keep you audience engaged beyond the show and build goodwill by letting them know that you really are listening.
I recently read a column by Andrew Davis in Chief Content Officer, which perfectly sums up the importance of this final step: "If you're going to ask me to take seven minutes out of my day to fill out your lengthy questionnaire, I expect you to take seven minutes to explain how you're using my data to improve [my] experience... Otherwise, stop sending them."
Sounds like a fair request to me.
Bonus tip: don't forget your prospects.
Event organizers should be sure to send a separate survey to prospective attendees, exhibitors, or members who did not participate in the event to find out why. Membership organizations can also do the same with eligible individuals who are not yet members. Simply take your marketing email list, remove addresses from anyone who registered or joined, and send a non-attendee or non-member survey to those names that remain on the list.
I hope these tips help you get both a great response rate and data from your next trade show or association membership survey. Have questions or additional suggestions? Post them in the comments section.