More and more businesses are relying on online surveys to learn what their customers want, need, and value. Well-constructed online surveys can be effective market research tools, but they do have some disadvantages. Learning more about the pros and cons of online surveys can help you make better use of these powerful tools.

What’s So Great About Online Surveys?
Many things. For one, they can be very fast. A survey posted on a popular website can generate thousands of responses within a few hours. People who respond to email invitations to take a survey usually reply in a day or so. Contrast this with the painfully slow process of conducting a survey by snail mail, or the labor-intensive process of conducting a phone survey.

You can improve response time by keeping online surveys short, with “powerful” questions and smooth transitions. Powerful questions are ones that provide valuable knowledge. In constructing a survey, take a hard look at each question. Ask yourself if it will yield information that you will be able to use somehow. If it won’t, leave it out. In designing surveys, remember that shorter is usually better.

It’s also a good idea to try questions out on a small sample before using them with a broad population. That way you can see which questions provide useful information.

Another important advantage of online surveys is that they are relatively inexpensive. Once the survey has been constructed, it costs very little to administer it. You don’t need to pay for postage or telemarketing services, and you don’t need to hire someone to tabulate the results. Survey software makes collecting and analyzing responses easy, accurate, and inexpensive. Online surveys can be do-it-yourself projects. There is usually no need to hire expensive consultants to conduct them.

Online surveys give you greater flexibility than surveys conducted on paper or over the phone. You can use photos, video, sound, and just about any interactive medium you can think of. Sophisticated survey programs let respondents easily skip questions that don’t apply to them. For example, if a respondent checks “male,” he will automatically skip questions about pantyhose.

Online surveys are also flexible in the sense that people can complete them on their own schedule. In that way, they are less disruptive than phone surveys or in-person surveys in a mall.

Survey experts believe that people are more willing to answer questions about sensitive topics, such as sex or drug use, when replying to a computer rather than a person. Answers to such questions are also more likely to be honest.

Last, but certainly not least, responses to an online survey can be easily tabulated, sorted, analyzed, and converted to graphic representations.

The Down Side
Most of the disadvantages of online surveys are really no different from the disadvantages of surveys in general. For one thing, there is always a question about the sample. Is it large enough and does it accurately reflect the population you are interested in? Screening questions at the beginning of the survey can help ensure that you are asking the right people.

Then there is the question of honesty. While many experts believe that people are more honest when responding to a computer than to a person, there will always be exceptions. For example, landlords might under-report the number of tenants in an apartment to skirt residency laws. If people are being paid to complete a survey, they might just fill in answers randomly to finish as quickly as possible. (A carefully constructed survey can check for such “non-reliable respondents.”)

There is also sometimes a difference between what people say and what they do. For example, people might tell you that they floss their teeth religiously once a day because they know that’s what they’re supposed to do, even if they don’t.

Finally, you might find it easier to compose a survey using a word processing program rather than survey software. That is why it is important to choose user-friendly software with people behind it who are willing to help you construct truly efficient surveys.

On balance, the advantages of online surveys far outweigh the disadvantages. They are an efficient, economical way to get to know your customers.