Tips for Creating an Effective Survey

Surveys are an important tool to help you shape your public library marketing or communications strategy. If youve used surveys for cash, you probably have a good idea of the value they offer.

However, results are only as good as the design of the survey, so its worth spending the time building a survey that will return precisely the answers you need. Here are some tips and resources for structuring an effective survey.


What can you learn from a survey?

If you read even a little about marketing, you cant avoid hearing about how the discipline increasingly is being driven by data. Thats true of public relations and communications as well. In reality, successful communications and marketing strategies have always had a strong research component.

Surveys, especially those conducted online, have several advantages. They can be inexpensive, reach a large number of people, and produce statistically significant results. On the flip side, their structured nature means that there is little opportunity for dialogue between researcher and respondent, and key points could be overlooked.

Still, survey results can provide valuable information about what people know, what they believe, how they feel, what they do, and what they want. This information can help you determine what programs are needed for your library, what gaps in knowledge about your library exist, and where people turn most often for information about their library. Sometimes, the results can be quite surprising.


Who should I survey?

This depends on the purpose of your survey. If your objective is to develop and market new programs to baby boomers, your survey should be sent only to those in that age range.

Its very important that you survey both library patrons and those who never use any of the library services, especially to determine gaps of knowledge or the need for new services. If your goal is to attract more users to your library, its essential to reach beyond your own mailing list.

I recently attended a great session on meaningful community engagement, presented by Joan Frye Williams and George Needham at the 2012 PLA Conference.  They had some great advice to share on the topic:

  • Come to grips with what the patrons actually want, not what you want them to want.
  • Demographics are very narrow predictors; they dont provide enough information or context to understand the group you are surveying.
  • Surveys are often focused on popularity and satisfaction – asking regular library users why they like you is not good data, it ignores the people who aren’t using the library.
  • Randomly selected survey responses scale for only one individual; you need to scale for the masses. Seek out people who represent constituencies, community thought leaders, movers and shakers, and dont forget the private sector is part of your community, don’t leave them out.
  • What the community cares about changes over time it’s not the communitys job to understand the library, it’s the library’s job to understand the community! Possible elevator questions to get you started: What’s keeping you awake at night? What do you wish you knew more about? What positive changes would indicate to you that progress is being made on this issue? Who else should we talk to?


What kinds of questions should I ask?

Perhaps the most difficult part of survey research is designing the survey and the questions. It sounds simple enough to create a multiple-choice question, but it actually requires quite a bit of work and thought. To get more useful answers, create questions that are specific, and avoid simple Yes/No questions.

For example, avoid this kind of question.

Have you visited your library in the last year?



Instead, structure the question in this way.

How often have you visited your library in the last year?

1-3 times

4-7 times

8-10 times

10+ times

SurveyMonkey provides good tips and guidelines in its paper, Smart Survey Design. Or, check out ConstantContacts 8 tips for writing effective survey questions.

Both resources advocate simple and clear questions.


What survey tools are available?

There are several free survey tools available on the Web. SurveyMonkey and Zoomerang are among the most popular. Youve probably answered a survey created on one of these services. Both offer paid, upgrade options.

ConstantContact, used by many public libraries to manage their email marketing, also offers a customizable tool that creates professional-looking surveys for as little as $15 a month.


About Tiffany McClary

Tiffany McClary is the Director of Communications, Marketing & Outreach for the New Jersey State Library. She coordinates marketing and public relations initiatives in order to enhance the reputation of the State Library, and promote the value of NJ libraries and the services and programs that they provide to residents.