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What Is an Online Survey?
Market research provides invaluable direction to almost every aspect of a business, especially product or service design, marketing, and sales. Solid data on who your customers are, what they like and hate, and how they feel about things important to your company can literally shape how you run your business. One of the core mechanisms for gathering this kind of data is the online survey, which today has become available via multiple channels, including, of course, your website, but also email, digital and physical events, andsocial media. Careful use of an online survey can provide data for any aspect of your business that intersects with an audience, whether customers or partners. That can includedigital marketingcampaigns, customer service andhelp desk, employee satisfaction, political polling, event feedback, and many other purposes.
To a survey taker, a survey may seem like a simple progression of questions. However, while some surveys can be as short as a single question, others can be complex webs of question blocks and conditions that sometimes include actual scripting. And even if they don't go quite that far, many surveys call for navigation rules and other choices that can provide not only a better experience for respondents, but also for more precise data collection, which can be critical when that data later transitions tobusiness analysis tools. Fortunately, the latest survey tools focus strongly on combining this positive experience with ever more sophisticated data collection and parsing features. The result is that online surveys have remained among the most popular tools used by market researchers for the last several years.
Deeper Dive: Our Top Tested Picks
Good for Seasoned Marketers
An unapologetic online survey tool for professionals, Qualtrics is a go-to for enterprises that are willing to pay for the greatest flexibility.
- Best-in-class Survey Flow screen to enable "forest" and "tree" views of surveys.
- Exceptional support for carry-forward or masked answer choices.
- Non-modal question editing.
- Synchronized preview of mobile and desktop questionnaires.
- Lacks the ability to maintain multiple shared reports that can include or exclude various data cuts.
- Lacks "to-do list"-like project management.
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Read Our Qualtrics Review
Alchemer (formerly SurveyGizmo)
Helps Small Business Marketers With Some Experience
Alchemer (formerly SurveyGizmo) is an advanced and highly capable online survey tool that can accommodate a wide array of tasks, particularly through custom coding
- Bulk Edit mode streamlines operations
- Advanced layout and reporting features
- Supported well via conferences, forums, phone, and videos
- Some limits in setting up logic
Read Our Alchemer (formerly SurveyGizmo) Review
Good for Larger Organizations
Online survey tool Zoho Survey offers a great combination of power and ease of use. It's one of the best values, even if you are not a Zoho Suite user.
- Support for offline surveys.
- Integration with other Zoho applications.
- Mobile app allows for the monitoring of survey responses.
- No support for display logic.
- No support for question blocks.
Read Our Zoho Survey Review
Fast, Small Business Deployments
SoGoSurvey is a feature-rich online survey tool that's pleasant to use, with a reporting function that's a notch above many competitors. It's a worthy alternative to rivals, but it needs more flexibility in question ordering.
- Able to include Pivot Tables in reports.
- Offers bulk editing mode.
- Advanced support options available.
- Features for working with multiple surveys (dashboard, reporting canvas, merging).
- Help resources not as robust as more advanced tools.
- Display logic questions limit re-ordering.
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Read Our SoGoSurvey Review
Popular Survey Solution for Smaller Companies
SurveyMonkey is an ideal online survey tool for intermediate questionnaire designers. Its artificial intelligence use is promising.
- Survey status monitoring is easy using mobile app.
- Question library is comprehensive.
- High market share yields many integrations.
- Display logic support is missing.
- Lower pricing tiers don't offer great value.
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Read Our SurveyMonkey Review
Enterprise-Oriented With Sophisticated Data Analysis
Online survey tool WorldApp KeySurvey is a highly capable and flexible system and is set up for enterprises that need administrative controls and security.
- Good administrative controls.
- Easy-to-use task delegation user interface.
- Disjointed user interface.
- Powerful plug-in system, but it needs more explanation.
Read Our WorldApp KeySurvey Review
Larger Companies That Don't Mind a Learning Curve
Checkbox Survey offers solid customization but power too far under the hood. Look for an improved UI this winter.
- Flexibility in matrix question design.
- Effective navigation with question outline.
- Audit trail.
- Static reports offer no analysis capabilities.
- Cumbersome user interface.
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Read Our Checkbox Survey Review
Good for Beginners
Online survey tool SurveyPlanet is an easy, affordable step up from Google Forms that won't scale to more complex questionnaires.
- Clean, minimalist user interface.
- Provides overviews of branching questions.
- No support for matrix questions.
- Limited question types.
- Panel purchase option is not integrated.
Read Our SurveyPlanet Review
Outside Software eSurveysPro
Decent for Small Business Marketers
Online survey tool Outside Software eSurveysPro simply has not kept up with competitive offerings, and has significant feature gaps for which its low price doesn't compensate.
- Dated user interface.
- Inability to view questionnaires after fielding.
- No application programming interfaces or integrations.
Read Our Outside Software eSurveysPro Review
Aimed at Knowledgeable Users in Big Companies
Toluna is one of the largest respondent panel purveyors in the industry, which might attract you to its QuickSurveys tool. However, while it's a fairly solid tool, Toluna's solution is still best mostly for surveys with relatively straightforward structures.
- Good integration with Toluna QuickSurveys respondent panel.
- Excellent reporting and sharing controls.
- Tabbed questionnaire builder scales poorly.
- Filters and skip logic are not tied to questions.
- Question overview mode is limited.
Read Our Toluna QuickSurveys Review
Buying Guide: The Best Online Survey Tools
Most Popular Market Research Tools in the US (2017-2018)
When considering an online survey tool, one great way to get acquainted with a product's capabilities is by taking its free version for a spin. These often allow the creation of simple surveys, some of which will even allow unlimited questions and respondents. However, if you're just trying to get some consensus from a group of friends or co-workers regarding a lunch restaurant preference, then you may not need to wade into the waters of dedicated online survey tools because simple polls are already built into Facebook and Twitter. Google Forms is also a free and easy-to-use web product from the omnipresent entity that is ideal for sending out a few simple questions and charting the results—or even tracking them in Google Sheets.
Virtually all modern online survey tools include at least three main components: questionnaire design, distribution, and reporting. More on each of these components below:
1. Questionnaire Design.This is the section on which different types of questions are added, edited, and arranged; answer choices are provided, and logic is constructed. Some questionnaire designers have the ability to import skeletal questionnaires from Microsoft Word. However, they offer tools that are commonly used among survey designers. Most products include skip logic, which is the ability to skip over certain parts of a survey and continue at a future question. For example, if respondents answers a phone ownership question saying they have an iPhone, then you might want to skip a question that followed it that asks for their phone brand since you already know it's Apple.
Some products also include display logic, which is the ability to show or hide a question or section of a survey based on conditions that occurred before it. This can require far less upfront planning, although a few products in our review roundup implemented it very poorly, preventing question order from changing after setting it up. On the other hand, some packages that can accommodate particularly long and complex surveys can divide questions into sets or blocks; this can make it much easier to keep track of questions that pertain to a similar subtopic, for example.
Other tools that provide for more flexibility include piping, which is the ability to insert information from previous questions. For example, if a respondent had a Samsung phone in one question, then a follow-up question could be personalized by using that information. It could be phrased as, "You said you had a Samsung phone. What influenced that purchase?" as opposed to simply, "What influenced the purchase of your phone brand?"
Another aid to smarter survey design is "masking" or "carry-forward" answers. For example, if one were to ask the same respondents to select the top three reasons why they chose a Samsung phone, then there might be another question in which one asks them to rank only the three features they chose.
Often, question-building facilities will have options for customizing the look of the survey via themes, while at other times this will be a separate section of the tool. There will also often be a facility for previewing or testing the survey.
I tended to emphasize the questionnaire designer in my online survey tool reviews. All surveyed products can provide at least one survey link and export their data for further analysis beyond their own reporting features. However, there is no real alternative to the user interface (UI) or functionality of a survey package's questionnaire editor.
2. Distribution.Once a questionnaire is complete, it is ready to be let out into the world or at least into the small part of it you wish to survey. At the very least, all packages will provide a web link that can be posted on a website or social media. Some packages will go the extra step by providing direct links into a range of social media networks, and some will include integrated contact managers and email campaign trackers. While this can make it easier to track how particular respondents answered in a non-anonymous survey, many offerings will require extra payment once an email list gets too large, whereas generic links can be shared with no respondent limit.
Another way survey packages can make it easier to track different groups of respondents is via multiple "collector" links. These are simply different links to the same survey that can be broken out in analysis later. For example, if you wanted to field a survey to both Facebook and Twitter users, then posting different collector links on each network would let you track from which social network different respondents came.
3. Reporting.As survey responses come in or after a survey is complete, you'll want to see how people responded. All products have the ability to see how individual respondents answered all questions. They can also generate at least basic bar and pie charts to provide simple visualization along with some way to export both the data (often in a spreadsheet-ready form) and the charts [often in a format such as PDF orMicrosoft PowerPoint. More advanced products can augment these charts with various measures such as averages and response count, and then filter the results based on the responses to different questions. Or they can produce crosstabs, share customized reports with colleagues, and even dip into more analyses that require a bit of statistics expertise.
Indeed, these web apps are available with multiple (typically three) pricing plans and generally offer significant discounts if access is paid for one year in advance. A key feature or even question type that the product supports may not be available in a pricing tier that matches your budget even if the survey package supports it. Unfortunately, some products have feature list comparisons among their pricing tiers that are long enough to induce dizziness, so it's worth a call or email inquiry to the company to ensure that a package meets your requirements at a specific plan spending level.
That said, with surveys often being iterative projects, it is sometimes difficult to anticipate this in advance, so also inquire whether it is possible to upgrade or downgrade. In general, I looked at feature sets that tended to be available at two pricing tiers: basic tiers at approximately $300 per year and advanced tiers at approximately $1,000 per year. However, there are bargains to be found among the field, particularly if you're willing to endure some UI or feature compromises.
The Online Survey Tools
Given that its popularity has ascended to the point where it has become practically a generic name for a survey app, I started my reviews with SurveyMonkey as a baseline package. As it turns out, SurveyMonkey has kept up with the competition pretty well over the years, going far beyond the 80/20 rule one might expect for such a broadly used tool. Both SoGoSurvey and particularly Alchemer (formerly SurveyGizmo)—a former Editors' Choice—also represent powerful online survey tools that in many ways exceed what SurveyMonkey offers while preserving much of its look and feel. Any of these would be excellent choices for advanced survey designers. I think Alchemer represents the most capable choice, even though SoGoSurvey has made strong recent improvements in its UI.
Two of the packages provided a simpler, cleaner approach to this UI model: the very basic SurveyPlanet and Zoho Survey, the latter being part of a broad suite of web apps available via subscription. Between the two, Zoho Survey emerged as a surprisingly powerful package that could hold its own against apps that took the SurveyMonkey approach. And I recommend it even for those who don't use the other Zoho apps.
On the other hand, working with some other products was less pleasant even though they included strong feature sets. These included the powerful Checkbox Survey and the midrange Outside Software eSurveysPro and Toluna QuickSurveys, the latter of which is offered by and integrated with the global survey consumer panel of Toluna. WorldApp KeySurvey, while not as awkward as some of these other products, could do much to modernize its UI. However, it has some redeeming features geared toward enterprise users, such as advanced administrative access control, in-depth and customized panelist management, and a strong focus on reuse.
In the end, there was one product that stood above all others and that was Qualtrics, which earns our Editors' Choice. Its unique UI, while initially more overwhelming than other products and occasionally requiring more steps than in competitive offerings, does an excellent job of providing a wide array of options while enabling direct access to survey questions. Other powerful and clever touches abound as well.
For example, while many packages provide the ability to preview what a survey looks like on a desktop or a mobile device, Qualtrics does simultaneous and synchronized previews of both, side by side. And there was simply nothing in any other package that could compare to the power of its "Survey Flow" capability for tracking what can be a twisted path through complex surveys. Qualtrics also has an excellent reporting feature, including a number of advanced statistical analysis and semantic analysis of textual responses as well as robust report formatting.
Alas, while there are elements of Qualtrics that would be of near-universal benefit, only those individuals creating the most sophisticated surveys can justify its off-the-charts cost. Like a full-frame photo professional's digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, Qualtrics is not the best choice for novice online survey designers. It provides very little hand-holding or wizards like other tools do. And at $1,500 per year for its entry-level tier, Qualtrics' pricing begins at only slightly less than where our No. 2 choice Alchemer's Full Access pricing tops off.
Many of these offerings provide rich toolsets for survey design and a number of amenities to create better-designed surveys, starting with a range of questions. However, designing, executing, and analyzing the results of high-quality surveys can still require a level of expertise that can be gotten through extensive training. Indeed, while my reviews didn't discuss acquiring and evaluating survey samples in-depth, as they are only incidental to the tools, this is a discipline in and of itself.
Hence, it's no accident that Alchemer offers a rich support library filled with many examples and videos, a vibrant community of users, and in-person training events that are held several times per year in different parts of the country. Qualtrics hosts an annual online conference that brings in speakers to discuss different trends in surveying. If you want to ensure that people with the most intimate knowledge of your survey tools are designing your surveys, a number of the the tools companies offer professional survey design services, including Qualtrics, Alchemer, SurveyMonkey, and Toluna QuickSurveys. The prices of these survey design services must be individually negotiated. It's an option to consider if there's need for a survey that requires extensive custom programming beyond a company's available resources or expertise.
Have any questions about how online survey tools help you engage with your customers? Join the[emailprotected](Opens in a new window)discussion group on LinkedIn and you can ask vendors, other professionals like yourself, and PCMag's editors.