How to do market research: the ultimate guide

Morgan Molnar

Morgan Molnar

Learn how to conduct your own market research with survey design, sampling, and analysis best practices from our survey experts.

  1. Intro to market research: Learn what market research is, why it’s important, and the difference between various types of market research so you can choose the best method for your project.
  2. Planning: Use our frameworks to define your business questions and research goals, outline your project scope, and document your plan in a research brief.
  3. Survey design: Get expert tips for how to structure your market research survey, write good questions, and optimize for data quality—plus survey templates and a pre-launch checklist.
  4. Fielding: Read our recommendations for how to reach your ideal survey respondents, determine the right number of people to survey, and time your launch for optimal response rates.
  5. Analysis: Get best practices for preparing your dataset, interpreting and visualizing your results, analyzing trends over time, and understanding statistical significance.
  6. Taking action: Learn how to find the stories in your data, turn insights into strategic business recommendations, and inspire action from your stakeholders.

01 Intro to market research

Everything you need to know before getting started

Market research is essential to every organization.

According to the latest global market research report by ESOMAR, a global community of market researchers, roughly $45 billion is spent on market research annually around the globe. The majority of these resources are spent contracting full-service vendors and agencies that do your market research for you. But what if you could cut out the middleman and do it yourself? Doing your own market research is much cheaper, faster, and not nearly as difficult as you might think, as long as you know what you’re doing.

In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know to run your own market research programs and get insights to help everyone at your company make business decisions—without costly middlemen.

What is market research?

Market research is the process of collecting information on consumers’ behaviors and preferences, category trends, and/or competitive intelligence. Market research is typically conducted by organizations to inform product development and go-to-market strategy to ultimately drive business growth.

Market research can help companies answer questions like:

  • How large is the market opportunity for my product/service?
  • How does my brand stack up against the competition?
  • Which demographics are most likely to buy my product/service?
  • Which advertising campaign will resonate best with my target market?

Why is market research important?

Sure, business decisions can be made based on gut instincts alone, but doing so comes with high risk. After all, not all of us can be brilliant visionaries like Steve Jobs, who famously said, “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.” We beg to differ. Market research provides the necessary data-backed evidence to help you make those decisions with confidence. Here’s why market research is so important:

  • Market research steers your business strategy. When it comes to deciding on the company direction, heavy investment (dollars or personnel) is on the line. Market research is the essential validation that assures you that you can move forward or the warning bell that signals you need to go in a different marketing or product direction.
  • Market research helps you avoid costly mistakes. According to Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen, 95% of new product launches fail. And launching a new product costs serious money. If you’re launching a new product, market research can give you the data you need to ensure your product is in the winning 5%.
95% of new product launches fail
  • Market research builds credibility. Whether you’re trying to create persuasive marketing collateral, become a thought leader in your industry, or impress your C-Suite, market research arms you with the facts to back up your arguments and claims.
  • Market research shows you where to go next. We’ve all heard the phrase “innovate or die.” If your business isn’t adapting to market trends and evolving consumer needs, you’ll likely get left in the dust by your competitors. Market research can diagnose when your brand is starting to get stagnant, help you know which new products/campaigns to launch, and guide you on which markets to enter next.

Types of market research

Market research is a broad term that encompasses several different types of information gathering. It can mean different things to different people and be viewed through a number of different lenses. In order to give you a comprehensive understanding of it, we’ll walk through each of common types of market research, their pros and cons, and how they’re most commonly used. We’ll talk about the differences between:

  • Primary research versus secondary research
  • Quantitative research versus qualitative research
  • DIY market research versus full-service market research

Primary research versus secondary research

Fundamentally, market research can be broken down into two major categories: primary research and secondary research.

  • Primary research is when you collect new information for the first time. Primary research can take the form of either qualitative or quantitative research (more to come on that), but the main distinguishing factor is that the research hasn’t been conducted before.
  • Secondary research is the gathering, consolidation, and summarization of data and research that already exists. For example, if you were to go digging into the US Census for population stats, you would be doing secondary research.

For the purpose of this guide, we will be focusing on primary research. Once you’re done reading, you’ll be a pro at conducting your own primary market research.

Quantitative research versus qualitative research

Quantitative and qualitative research can be done individually or in combination to get broader and deeper insights.

  • Quantitative research is the process of gathering structured, numerical data and using statistical analysis (anything from simple averages to predictive analytics) to make sense of it. Quantitative research can be done at scale and with a much larger sample sizes, because numerical results are easy to aggregate and summarize.
  • Qualitative research typically dives into a particular topic to understand the subjects’ experiences, thoughts, and opinions in detail. Qualitative research is the process of exploring and collecting unstructured information—like text, images, audio, and video—and summarizing the findings into themes. Because of this, qualitative research is done with a smaller sample size—usually anywhere from 5 to 20 research subjects.

The main differences between quantitative and qualitative research are summarized below:


Quantitative researchQualitative research
Research design:
-Descriptive/confirmatory
-Large sample size
Research design:
-Exploratory
-Smaller sample sizes
Data/analysis:
-Structured data
-Aggregates and averages
-Presented in numbers
Data/analysis:
-Unstructured data
-In-depth details
-Presented in themes
Pros:
-Faster and easier to analyze results with spreadsheets and statistical software
-Larger sample sizes mean the results are more likely to be statistically significant
Pros:
-Deep dive into the “how” and “why”
-Exploratory research design provides the opportunity to capture concepts or ideas you hadn’t thought of before
Cons:
-Less detail around “how” and “why”
-Structured research design means it’s possible the research isn’t capturing all possible concepts or ideas
Cons:
-Time consuming and difficult to analyze the findings
-Smaller sample sizes mean the results are less likely to be statistically significant

Quantitative research examples

  • Surveys, especially market research surveys, can be used to collect feedback, perceptions, and opinions from a sample of your target market. Survey data is most often quantitative (e.g.: 90% of people wouldn’t feel safe as a passenger in a self-driving car), but can also be qualitative if open-ended questions are used.
  • In-market experiments involve launching a product/campaign/website/etc. in a single geographic or demographic market (the test group) and measuring the business impact compared to a similar market that wasn’t exposed to the launch (the control group). In-market experiments are great for testing things like digital ad effectiveness or whether a product extension will win market share from a competitor instead of cannibalizing your existing offerings.
  • Implicit data collection is always-on, passive data gathering of actions or transactions. Examples of this could be capturing barcode scanning data at a store checkout to know what items were purchased at what price, or measuring website traffic, or mobile location tracking. Implicit data collection differs from explicit data collection where the information is directly provided as part of the research study (e.g.: in a survey).

Qualitative research examples

  • In-depth Interviews (IDIs) are typically conducted one-on-one and go deep into a particular topic. Qualitative interviews can be in-person, over the phone, or online. Interviews are great for exploring perspectives and feelings on a topic in participants’ own words.
  • Focus groups gather a small group of people together (typically in-person) to discuss a topic. Focus groups are ideal for getting feedback when physical interaction with a product concept is necessary (e.g.: when testing new flavors or scents, or watching a screening of a TV show pilot).
  • Observational research is when the researcher simply observes subjects going about their normal routine and documents what they see. For example, researchers could observe a shopper’s path through a retail or grocery store to better understand how to lay out the store experience. The “results” in the case of observational research usually come in the form of written researcher notes.
  • Yes, even surveys. It might seem like surveys are meant for quantitative research, but they can also be used for qualitative research. Open-ended survey questions provide a flexible way for survey takers to provide more detail around their answers, making the results qualitative in nature.

DIY market research versus full-service market research

When your organization needs to conduct market research, there are a couple ways to go about it. The two main approaches are do-it-yourself (DIY) market research or to use a full-service market research firm.

  • DIY market research is when organizations do their own market research using self-service tools like survey platforms and online survey panels like SurveyMonkey Audience. Typically, DIY market research is done opportunistically by the team that needs the results, but the research could also be done by a centralized internal insights team using similar tools. DIY market research can be just as robust and reliable as full-service market research. While it but does require some expertise this ultimate guide will teach you everything you need to know to run your own successful DIY market research project.
  • Full-service market research is when an organization pays a vendor to conduct market research for them. The vendor could be a market research firm, marketing agency, or consulting firm. Things like research design, data collection, analysis, and business recommendations can all be handled by a vendor, but it can take time and is more expensive.

Here is a summary of the pros and cons of DIY market research and full-service market research for you to consider when deciding how you’ll conduct your research:

DIY market researchFull-service market research
Pros:
-Instant results
-Cost-effective
-Complete control over research design and timeline
Pros:
-All of the work is done for you by the vendor
-No expertise needed

Cons:
-Requires work internally to set up the research and analyze results

Cons:
-Takes a long time
-Expensive
-Requires vendor on-boarding to ensure relevant recommendations

Now that you’re well versed in the different types of market research, it’s time to get you off and running! In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know to conduct your own market research from start to finish—from creating a project plan to designing your survey to collecting representative responses to turning results into action.

The best practices in this guide span any market research use case, but we’ll focus on the three example surveys you see below: consumer behavior, ad testing, and brand tracking. By the time you’ve finished reading this guide, you’ll be a pro at DIY market research!

Consumer Behavior

A survey measuring millennials’ usage of video streaming services.

View example

Ad Testing

A survey assessing print ad concepts for a fictional dog food company.

View example

Brand Tracking

A survey tracking awareness and perception of sparkling water brands.

View example

02 Planning

How to create a market research plan

Before you get knee-deep in survey design and data collection, it’s important to have a clear plan in place for your market research. Knowing when you need market research, understanding what type of market research is important to your business, aligning with your stakeholders, and scoping out your project ahead of time will ensure you stay on track and deliver actionable results.

When to do market research

So, when’s the best time to do market research? Trick question! Continuously. No matter where you work, you can always tap into the market’s opinions and preferences to be better at your job.

Let’s look at this in the context of a product’s lifecycle:

How market research fits into the product life cycle

How market research fits into the product life cycle
  • Development: When you’re planning to launch a new product, you need to fundamentally understand the market opportunity, consumers’ needs and preferences, how they buy, what competitors are already doing, and what general trends are showing up in the industry. When you get to product ideation, deciding early things like the product name and logo can also benefit from consumer feedback.
  • Introduction: When you get closer to product launch, testing various iterations of your product to make sure you’ve nailed product-market fit is critical. Beyond the product itself, you’ll want to test things like packaging, claims, website messaging, and other early marketing materials. When you get your first customers, they’ll be a gold mine for early-stage feedback so you can iterate.
  • Growth: As you start to grow your product sales and build your brand, market and customer feedback becomes even more important. In the growth stage when customer acquisition is extremely important, doing market research allows you to test and optimize your messaging, keep tabs on your brand perception, and identify ways to improve your product so you keep growing your customer base.
  • Maturity: Product maturity is not a time to rest on your laurels. Keeping a continuous pulse on your brand, competitors, and industry trends when your product is in the mature stage can help you decide where to go next. Maybe it’s time to expand to a new market, refresh your brand, or develop a product line extension.
  • Decline / Extension: When your product sales start to drop, it’s critical to diagnose why. Is it merely seasonality? A new product in the category that’s stealing market share? Market research can help you detect declines early. And if you’re looking to expand your product offerings to offset the decline, the need for market research reappears as your re-enter the development stage.

If the answer to “when should I do market research” is “all the time,” how do companies manage and plan for that? One way is budgeting for large annual studies—like brand tracking and competitive research every year or more frequently. In addition to that, more and more companies have taken a page from the world’s most innovative companies to make their market research more agile.

What is agile market research?

Agile market research is an approach to conducting market research in which projects are structured in small, frequent “sprints” so you can adapt to challenges on the fly.

Rooted in the Agile Methodology first introduced in the software development space, agile market research takes on a lot of the same characteristics you’d find in startup culture. Agile market research goes beyond just being faster. As SurveyMonkey president Tom Hale described in his piece in Quirk’s, “The era of doing a couple of large, set-in-stone projects a year is gone. Today your research goals adapt to the ever-changing needs of the business, which translates into frequent projects that validate your strategy along the way.”


“The era of doing a couple of large, set-in-stone projects a year is gone. Today your research goals adapt to the ever-changing needs of the business, which translates into frequent projects that validate your strategy along the way.”


The movement towards agile market research

Agile market research isn’t a brand new concept, but it has spread like wildfire. Even a couple years ago, 78% of researchers were planning to adopt agile market research methodologies, according to a study by GutCheck. With DIY research tools like SurveyMonkey and SurveyMonkey Audience, more people and teams within an organization are able to do their own market research without having to rely on centralized insights teams or full-service agencies, and this allows them to always have the data they need to make decisions faster.

Below is SurveyMonkey’s agile market research framework. It visualizes a cyclical  approach to exploring, testing, validating, and optimizing strategies—whether they’re ideas, concepts,  campaigns, you name it—all the while continuously tracking progress. It takes what otherwise might be a long, drawn out research timeline and breaks it into sprints of smaller, more manageable projects. The beauty of this framework is its versatility. It shows you how agile market research can help you for nearly any challenge or project you might encounter at your job.

Agile market research framework: explore, test, validate, optimize, and track

Each research phase fundamentally asks the following questions:

  • Explore: What are the needs of the market?
  • Test: Which idea does my market prefer?
  • Validate: How successful will my idea be?
  • Optimize: Which improvements will make my idea even better?
  • Track: How am I doing?

The key takeaway here is that with the right tools and processes, research can be an ongoing activity that any team in your organization can own. Now, that doesn’t mean that you should just start conducting research willy-nilly. Having a clear direction and plan will make frequent research that much more strategic and actionable. The first step is defining the business question your research aims to answer.

Defining the business question and research goal

Starting a market research project from scratch can feel intimidating. If you break it into chunks and have a clear vision of what you’re looking for, things become easier. In order to focus your research, you should lay out the business question and research goals you’re looking to achieve.

The business question is a short summary of the problem you’re solving for and the context of how it fits in to your business. We’re not talking about survey questions here—business questions are high-level goals or challenges that tie directly to your business objectives that can help you make better decisions. A business question might involve:

  • Knowledge gaps: things you don’t know about your industry, competitors, or target buyers
  • Business phenomena: trends you’re seeing in the business (e.g.: dips in sales or increases in churn) that need explaining
  • Predictions: you might just be looking to be one step ahead of your competitors
  • And more…

The research goal is an outline of the specific facts or metrics you hope to learn with your research. In other words, your research goals are what helps you answer your business question, you can map research goals to that question. Writing strong, relevant research goals is important because they will later  translate to specific survey questions later on.


A good rule of thumb is to have no more than 3 research goals so you ensure your survey is focused and not overwhelming for respondents.

To bring this to life, here are some hypothetical business questions and research goals:

Business questionResearch goals
Consumer behavior:
We’re considering investing in a couple video streaming services companies, and we need to understand the existing landscape and perceptions so we invest wisely.



1. Learn what tech brands and apps are most popular among millenials

2. Gather proof points around quantity/satisfaction of apps used

3. Understand millennials’ usage and attitudes towards streaming services
Ad testing:
We’re very close to going to market with our new dog food, and our designers have come up with several great designs for print ads. How do we choose which design to go with?
1. Compare consumer appeal and preference for each ad design

2. Identify which design consumers would be willing to pay more for

3. Assess any differences by consumer demographics
Brand tracking:
We’re an established brand in the sparkling water category, but a lot of new brands have launched in the last year. What does that mean for us?
1. Measure brand awareness for all major brands in the category

2. Assess each brand’s perception and associations

3. Understand brand adoption for our brand and the new entrants


As you go about connecting your business question to your research goals, you should begin thinking about summarizing how your results will be used, what format they’ll be delivered in (a summary in a spreadsheet? a formal presentation to executives?), and who the key stakeholders are for the research (typically those responsible for business decisions). All of this information will be helpful later when you create a brief to help you summarize (or defend) your market research project.

Outlining your project scope

When your objectives are clear, the next step is to outline your project scope. This includes your project budget, who you’ll be surveying and how, and the estimated project timeline.

Know your budget

Okay, so this is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Should the project scope determine the budget or vice versa? The reality is that most teams are given a set budget for the year and need to figure out how to work within it. Earlier in the year (or planning cycle), you might have more unallocated funds to work with, but as the year goes on, things might get tighter. Where you stand with budget will likely determine how you move forward.

Things to consider when figuring out your budget:

  • What is the estimated price of the sample? DIY solutions like SurveyMonkey Audience let you calculate the cost of your responses before creating a survey. Things that affect sample price are: sample size, targeting criteria, and the number of people you expect to qualify for your survey.
  • Will you need any services, or will your team have capacity to do things like survey translations for international studies and data analysis?
  • How frequently will you be running the study? Is this a one-off project or a recurring tracking study? The number of waves will affect your project cost.
  • If you’re using a full-service research vendor, are there any additional agency fees?

Figure out how you’re going to reach your target audience

Knowing who you need to target with your survey and how you plan to do it will have implications for how you resource your project (both dollars and team members working on it). Try to answer the following questions before getting started:

  • Who am I surveying?
  • How many people do I need to survey?
  • Do I already have access to those people?
  • Will I be able to get responses from the people I have access to fast enough?
  • How will I send my survey to these people?
  • Alternatively, would an online panel have the people I need to reach?

Not to worry, we’ll go into much more depth on how to answer these questions in the fielding section of this guide.

Create a project timeline

Understanding how long each step in a market research project takes will ensure you start the work early enough to have actionable insights before you need to make your decisions. Here’s the timeline you can expect for a large scale DIY market research project.

Market research timeline

market research project timeline

Timing considerations for each step:

  • Planning: Depending on the number of stakeholders for your project, it could take a couple meetings to make sure  everyone agrees on the goals of the research.
  • Survey design: This step could be pretty quick if you start with one of our market research survey templates, but might take longer if each stakeholder wants to have input into the survey design.
  • Fielding: The time it takes to collect all of your responses will depend on your target (a broader audience will take less time to field than a more specific audience) and your methodology (an online panel like SurveyMonkey Audience could take as little as a couple hours, but sending a survey via social media or email could take longer as it requires reminders).
  • Analysis: You’ll want to consider how exhaustive you think your analysis will be. If you’re looking to describe the opinions or perceptions of people in your sample, it might mean a few days to create simple charts and graphs, but if you need to run statistical analyses or models, this portion might take longer.
  • Roadshow: Once you have your insights consolidated, showing them to your stakeholders could just be a meeting or two (even an email if you’re moving quickly), or it might require longer discussions if closely tied to a large strategic initiative.
  • Action: The most important step! While there might be individual decision points, it’s tough to assign a timeframe for the action step as it should be ongoing once your results have been shared.

Now, these are timeline estimates for a larger-scale research project with several stakeholders. The beauty of agile market research is that it’s frequent and built into your business process. You might follow the above timeline for the first run, but future projects could be done on the fly in a much more accelerated timeline (perhaps even just days from start to finish).

Documenting your plan in a research brief

Once you’ve worked through everything above, you should document everything in a research brief. Research briefs are a great way to keep everything in one place. A well-written research brief will be able to tell anyone who’s interested exactly what you will be studying (and what you won’t be) to make sure everyone is on the same page. And if anyone wants to suggest something that’s not part of your experiment, your research brief will help you show why you need to stick to the plan.

Here’s an example research brief you can follow:

And with your plan all set, you’re ready to start drafting your survey!

03 Survey design

How to design a successful market research survey

In this section, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about writing an effective market research survey. We’ll start with how to structure your survey, discuss question writing tips, tell you ways to optimize your survey for data quality, provide market research survey templates to get you started, and even share a pre-launch checklist. Let’s get to it!

To start, take a look at the below diagram. It breaks down the anatomy of a good market research survey. We’ll dive into all of these recommendations in more detail in this chapter.

Anatomy of a good market research survey:

market research design

How to structure your market research survey

Before you begin writing survey questions, it’s important to know how to structure a good market research survey. While there isn’t a perfect formula, there are several fundamental things to take note of before you get writing:

  • Go from general to specific. Treat your survey like a conversation with someone you just met. You wouldn’t start a conversation by asking what they think of the packaging on their favorite brand of pet food. You’d warm them up by asking first if they had a dog, what kind it was, what kind of dog food they buy, etc. That’s what we mean by going from general to specific. Start your survey with higher level questions about the category you’re interested in, and then get into specific preferences and opinions.
  • Start simple. Open-ended questions require respondents to think harder. Our research shows that seeing an open-ended question at the very beginning of a survey may make some respondents drop out, lowering your survey’s completion rate. The same goes for lengthy intros and a large matrix/rating scale questions. An easy fix? Begin your survey with a simple multiple choice question to draw respondents into it.

Average completion rate by type of opening question

average survey completion rate by type of opening question
  • Keep screening questions at the beginning. If you are trying to target a specific group of people using screening questions in your survey, it’s best to use them in the beginning of your survey. That way, you’ll disqualify respondents who aren’t relevant for your survey before they get too far.
  • Include your demographic questions last. Things like age and zip code are easy and fast to answer, but there are demographic questions like household income and sexual orientation that are more sensitive. To avoid drops in response rate, build up some trust and engagement with the respondent first (with your survey) before asking them personal demographic questions. Also, this allows you to ask the questions that answer your research goals first, while respondents are still fresh (even a fatigued respondent will still answer their age correctly).
    • Note: if you’re using a demographic question as a screener, it’s still best to include it at the beginning of the survey.
  • Limit the use of page breaks. Page breaks mean extra clicks for your respondents and too many could annoy them. However, there are times when page breaks are necessary (e.g.: when using skip logic or after your screening questions). You can also use page breaks to separate different themes of your survey. In general, you can think about a Goldilocks rule for page breaks: one question per page is way too few; all questions on one page is way too many; 5-10 questions per page is juuuuust right.
  • Hide the “previous” button. In market research surveys, which so often evaluate things like first impressions or awareness of brands, it’s important that people can’t go back and change their first answers.  In the brand awareness survey example, you might be looking for the first brands that come to the respondents’ mind. If on the next page of the survey you have included brand names or imagery, you don’t want that respondent to be able to return back to the awareness question to change their answer. Hiding the “previous” button in your survey can avoid this.
    • Note that this is done automatically when you send your survey using our Audience panel.
  • Know your limitations. Make sure you’re adhering to any structural requirements of the platform or panel you’ll be using. With SurveyMonkey Audience, there is a maximum 50 question limit among a couple other survey design guidelines for ensuring data quality.

Now that we’ve reviewed how to structure your survey,  let’s look at strategies for writing your survey questions in a way that ensures you don’t bias your respondents.

How to write market research survey questions

A lot of things can inadvertently bias your survey respondents—the wording of your question, the sentence structure, how you choose your answer options, and more. Luckily it’s pretty easy to avoid if you adhere to these tips.

1. Follow the golden rules of good survey questions

No matter the question, the golden rules for writing a good survey question are:

  • Mutually exclusive answer options, meaning that there are no overlaps in answer options (e.g. age ranges 18-34 and 34-45 both have 34 in them).
  • Collectively exhaustive answer options, meaning that the answer options cover the full range of possibilities.
bad-mark-line680
Bad question:
How much time do you spend watching TV in a typical week?

• 1-3 hours
• 3-6 hours
• 6-9 hours
• 10-12 hours

This question is bad because the answer options overlap and it doesn’t account for people who watch fewer than 1 hour of TV or more than 12 hours or TV.
good-mark-line680
Good question:
How much time do you spend watching TV in a typical week?

• I don’t watch TV
• 1-3 hours
• 4-6 hours
• 7-9 hours
• 10 hours or more

This question is good because the answer options don’t overlap and it accounts for people who watch any amount of TV.

2. Balance your answer options

Ordinal scale questions like Likert scale questions are extremely common in market research. They typically come in the form of a 5-, or 7-point scale, which means they include 5 or 7  answer options. The key with these types of questions is balancing the number of positive, neutral, and negative answer options—there should be equal parts positive and negative.

bad-mark-line680
Bad question:
How likely are you to purchase this product?

• Extremely likely
• Likely
• Not likely

This question is bad because two out of the three answer options are positive.
good-mark-line680
Good question:
How likely are you to purchase this product?

• Extremely likely
• Very likely
• Somewhat likely
• Not so likely
• Not at all likely

This question is good because it uses 5 answer options that are balanced with 2 positive, 1 neutral, and 2 negative answer options.

Also, avoid agree/disagree questions. Survey scientists have found again and again that they cause desirability bias, the tendency for respondents to agree more often than they normally would. We recommend using Likert Scale questions instead.

If you’re having trouble coming up with the right answer options, SurveyMonkey’s Answer Genius can help by using artificial intelligence to predict the answer options you should use for a given question.

SurveyMonkey Answer Genius
SurveyMonkey Answer Genius
SurveyMonkey Answer Genius
Caption pro tip
Pro tip: Don’t trip up your respondents by switching up the question structure on every question. Whether you use 5-point scales or 7-point scales, go positive to negative or negative to positive, choose one question structure and stick to it.

3. Give your respondents a way out

Make sure every respondent who enters your survey is able to answer the questions in your survey—even if the survey question isn’t relevant to them. Including an “other” or “none of the above” or “never” answer option can help you achieve this.

bad-mark-line680
Bad question:
How often do you watch video using streaming services (like Netflix or Hulu)?

• Every day
• Several times a week
• About once a week
• Several times a month
• About once a month
• Several times a year or less frequently

This question is bad because it doesn’t account for people who have never watched video using a streaming service.
good-mark-line680
Good question:
How often do you watch video using streaming services (like Netflix or Hulu)?

• Every day
• Several times a week
• About once a week
• Several times a month
• About once a month
• Several times a year or less frequently
• I have never watched video

This question is good because it gives respondents who have never watched video using a streaming service an answer option that’s relevant to their experience.

4. Stay away from jargon

Jargon, industry-specific terms, acronyms, and slang have no place in a survey. If your respondents don’t understand what you’re asking you may end up with bad data, so don’t assume they know specific terms. Make your question wording as clear and simple as possible, and if you must, explain what technical terms are with examples (either within the question itself or in a survey introduction).

bad-mark-line680
Bad question:
How often do you use streaming services?

• Every day
• Several times a week
• About once a week
• Several times a month
• About once a month
• Several times a year or less frequently
• I have never used a streaming service

This question is bad because the respondent may not know what a “streaming service” is, and they might interpret it as audio or video or both.
good-mark-line680
Good question:
How often do you watch video using streaming services (like Netflix or Hulu)?

• Every day
• Several times a week
• About once a week
• Several times a month
• About once a month
• Several times a year or less frequently
• I have never watched video using a streaming service

This question is good because the wording clearly specifies what type of streaming service (video) and gives examples.

5. Avoid double-barreled questions

Be careful of words like “and” and “or” in your survey question. It may mean you’re asking two questions in one (double-barreled questions), which could make the results unusable. Make sure you’re sticking to one topic in your question, or split your question into two parts.

bad-mark-line680
Bad question:
How useful would this app be for getting your daily news and accessing popular media?

• Extremely useful
• Very useful
• Somewhat useful
• Not so useful
• Not at all useful

This question is bad because it asks about BOTH daily news and popular media. Does the respondent’s answer refer to daily news or popular media? Both? You don’t know.
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Good question:
How useful would this app be for getting your daily news?

• Extremely useful
• Very useful
• Somewhat useful
• Not so useful
• Not at all useful

How useful would this app be for accessing popular media?

• Extremely useful
• Very useful
• Somewhat useful
• Not so useful
• Not at all useful

These questions are good because they split the two ideas (getting daily news and accessing popular media) into separate questions.

6. Randomize your answer options

You don’t want the way you worded a question or the order of your answer options to influence respondents’ answers. Order bias can be reduced by randomizing your answer options. Note: Don’t randomize Likert scale questions—just make sure the answer options show up in a consistent order (positive to negative or negative to positive). Also, don’t bother randomizing if it makes more sense to arrange answer options alphabetically (e.g. US states and territories).

bad-mark-line680
Bad question:
Which of the following product categories have you purchased in the last 30 days? Select all that apply.

❑ Pet food
❑ Potato chips
❑ Sparkling water
❑ Packaged cookies
❑ Baby food
❑ Ice cream
❑ None of these

This question is bad if you intend to understand usage of pet food because that answer option is at the beginning and subject to order bias and will probably get more responses than the rest..
good-mark-line680
Good question:
Which of the following product categories have you purchased in the last 30 days? Select all that apply.

❑ Ice cream
❑ Packaged cookies
❑ Pet food
❑ Sparkling water
❑ Baby food
❑ Potato chips
❑ None of these

This question is good because the answer options are randomized for each respondent, reducing order bias and increasing the validity of results.
Caption pro tip
Pro tip: When randomizing your answer options, you can select “Do not randomize the last choice” so your “none” or “other” answer option stays at the bottom. Note: If you have checked the box to include an “Other (please specify)” answer option, that option will automatically be locked at the bottom when randomizing your answer options.

7. Be careful how you phrase your screening questions

Screening questions ensure your respondents actually meet your survey criteria. But savvy online panelists have caught on to the fact that failing a screening question means they get kicked out of the survey (and therefore, miss out on the incentive). You’re more likely to get higher data quality when respondents are unaware you’re using a screening question at the beginning of your survey. Avoid obvious screening questions like yes/no questions because acquiescence bias (tendency to answer “yes” to appear more agreeable) may influence respondents to answer dishonestly.

bad-mark-line680
Bad question:
Have you purchased pet treats in the last 30 days?

• Yes
• No [Disqualified]

This question is bad because it’s clear to respondents that this might be a screening question and influence them to answer “yes”.
good-mark-line680
Good question:
How often do you purchase pet treats?

• Once a week or more
• Several times a month
• Once a month
• A few times a year or less [Disqualified]
• Never [Disqualified]

This question is good because it’s not immediately clear that this is a screening question.
Caption pro tip
Pro tip: make sure your screening question logic is sound before launching your survey. There are nuances (especially with checkbox question types) that you’ll want to preview and test to validate that your logic is working correctly.

Tips for optimizing your survey for data quality

Data quality can be attributed to many things, but optimizing your survey design is one of the most important (and controllable!) ways to ensure reliable results. Here’s what you should and shouldn’t do:

Dos
DOs:

DO optimize your survey for mobile devices. On the SurveyMonkey platform, roughly 40% of surveys are being taken on a mobile device in the US, and that percentage is even higher internationally. Simplify your survey questions. Keep your survey short. Remove logos and progress bars that take up valuable screen space.

DO use survey logic to make surveys more relevant for respondents. This means using skip logic to make sure they aren’t answering questions they can’t answer and disqualification logic to make sure the right people are taking your survey. Double checking your survey logic can be a challenge, so we built a logic preview tool to make it easy for you.

DO make your questions required. If your questions aren’t mandatory, you might end up with an incomplete data set, which not ideal when you’re paying for responses. We recommend requiring answers to all of your questions in most cases. Note: if you’re using a matrix question, make sure you require all rows in the question.

DO turn off survey & page titles before launching your survey, especially if you think they will distract or bias your respondents. For example, if your brand name is in the survey title, you probably don’t want people to read it before they answer a brand awareness survey.

DO keep it interesting. Remember that there are humans on the other end of your survey. Be engaging! And if your survey is about a dry topic, try using colloquial language (but not slang!) as much as possible. You’ll get higher response rates and better data quality when respondents find the survey fun to take.


Don'ts
DON’Ts:

DON’T ask too many questions. Not surprisingly, our research has shown that longer surveys mean lower survey completion rates. We recommend sticking to 30 questions or less.

DON’T include too many answer options. 8-10 answer options is a good maximum to keep in mind for multiple choice or checkbox questions. Any more and people stop reading and are less likely to give a thoughtful answer. Try to stay under 6 for ranking questions. And stick to a maximum of 5 rows by 5 columns maximum for matrix questions.

DON’T include video content longer than 90 seconds. We’ve seen that multiple videos and videos longer than 60-90 seconds lead to lower completion rates.

Pro tip: turn off our One Question At A Time feature when using media like images or video in your market research survey. This allows easier scrolling up and down so respondents can revisit the media when answering follow-up questions.

DON’T edit or change your survey when you’re in the middle of collecting responses. Responses collected before and after you make your edits might not be comparable.

If you’ve read this far and you still don’t know where to begin, we’ve got 20+ market research survey templates waiting for you!

Market research survey templates

We have several market research survey templates to help you get started. All you have to do is customize the survey template for your product/service category and you’re good to go!

Consumer

Market sizing

Quantify the demand for your product, and pinpoint which market to enter next.

See template

Competitive intelligence

Measure awareness, usage, and NPS® for the key players in your category.

See template

Category awareness

Gauge the levels of awareness and adoption for emerging product categories.

See template

Consumer behavior

Understand your target market’s behaviors, perceptions, and needs.

See template

Shopper insights

Learn who, where, and how people shop for your product/service category.

See template

Path to purchase

Deep dive into the purchase decision making process of your target buyers.

See template
Product development

Product testing

Get feedback on your product concepts to learn which one will win in-market.

See template

Package testing

Test to see which packaging designs and messaging will stand out most with buyers.

See template

Pricing research

Know what consumers are willing to pay for your product and what’s too expensive.

See template

Name testing

Test company, brand, or product name ideas before launching.

See template

Marketing effectiveness

Ad testing

Test your advertising campaigns to know which will drive higher purchase intent.

See template

Logo testing

Get feedback on your logo ideas to find out which is most appealing to buyers.

See template

Message testing

See which marketing messages or claims resonate most with your target buyer.

See template
BrandTracking

Brand awareness

Learn how many people are aware of your brand plus how and when they heard about it.

See template

Brand conversion

Capture the entire brand funnel from awareness to consideration to loyalty.

See template

Brand performance

See what’s most important when making a purchase and how your brand performs.

See template


Can’t find what you’re looking for? See all market research survey templates, or check out our question bank when you create your next survey.

And if you’re planning to do a lot of research, you can create your own shared library of internal survey templates and a custom question bank so the research across your organization is consistent over time.

Checklist
Things to check before you launch

Here’s a pre-launch checklist for you to follow so you can make sure your market research survey is ready to send!

❑ Review your market research brief and make sure your survey appropriately addresses your business question and research goals.

Preview and test your survey so you can experience it the way a respondent would.

❑ Make sure your survey works well for different device types, especially mobile.

❑ Double check your survey logic and question validation using our logic preview feature.

❑ Put yourself in the shoes of someone you’re NOT targeting to make sure all questions are answerable and/or you have the appropriate disqualification logic.

❑ Double check the structural components of your survey—navigation buttons, survey and page titles, required questions, etc.

❑ Make sure the question text matches the question type. For example, if you want respondents to select all that apply, make sure you’re using the checkboxes question type.

❑ Double check that your media (e.g.: videos) are accessible when not logged into your media account.

❑ Give your survey a spelling/grammar once-over.

❑ If you’re unfamiliar with how the results will show up, try creating a weblink and take your own survey a couple times to make sure the results show up the way you expect. Don’t forget to delete your test responses before you analyze your data.

❑ Get a second pair of eyes—sometimes that’ll uncover anything you’ve missed!

Once you’re satisfied with your survey design, the next step is to collect survey responses!

04 Fielding

How to collect survey responses from the right people

Now that your survey is ready to launch (or as we say, get into “the field”), it’s time to figure out who you’ll target, how you’ll reach them, how many responses you’ll need, and when to send your survey.

Determining who you should target

When you’re sending out a market research survey, your ultimate goal is to understand the behaviors and perceptions of the target population you’re interested in. In order to do that, you need to know who your target audience is to begin with.

Here are some example characteristics that you could use to define your target audience:

  • Demographics: location, age, gender, education, household income, race, marital status, parental status
  • Employment & firmographics: employment status, job function, job level, industry, company size
  • Shopping habits: stores shopped at recently, online shopping frequency, restaurants visited recently, likelihood to make a ___ purchase in the next 12 months
  • Behavioral attributes: mobile device/app usage, pet ownership, exercise frequency, dietary restrictions, hobbies
SurveyMonkey Audience: SurveyMonkey's global panel for DIY market research

Now, if you’re a well-established company, you probably already have a good sense of who your target market is and the attributes that define it. But if you don’t that’s okay too. With market research there are times when you want to target a broad audience and times when you want to target a narrower group of people.

Examples of when to use broad survey targeting:

  • When you’re not sure who your target market is and are looking to define and segment the population who is interested in your product/service.
  • When your product/service category appeals to the general population. For example, some household products, foods, or mobile phones could be purchased by any gender, of any age, in any geography.
  • When you are measuring something at the top of the marketing funnel, like brand awareness and favorability. More people know about brands than purchase them, so targeting a broader audience to understand the spectrum of awareness across demographics could help you uncover deeper insights.

Examples of when to use narrow survey targeting:

  • When your product/service category is only relevant to a subset of the population. For example, if you’re assessing the appeal of a dog food package design, you’ll likely want to target dog owners. If you want to know what features to prioritize in a marketing automation software, best to survey marketers.
  • When you want to ask location-specific questions. For example, you might want to assess the impact of an ad in a specific geography or DMA (designated market area). If you’re only running the ad on the east coast of the U.S., no sense surveying the entire country to measure ad awareness and recall.
  • When you’re measuring something at the bottom of the marketing funnel, like purchase intent, satisfaction, or loyalty. In this case, you probably want to target category purchasers, or people who have already used your product (or perhaps even your competitor’s product).

How to reach your ideal survey respondents

How you’re going to reach the people you need to survey depends on who you’re surveying. Rest assured there are a variety of options for getting your survey in front of the right people.

Existing contacts

Existing contacts could be your friends, family, coworkers, customers, website visitors, social followers - anyone you already have access to. In most cases, you have some way of contacting them to invite them to take your survey.

Common ways of surveying existing contacts:

A sample of your target market

With most market research surveys, what you need to do is obtain a representative sample of your target market, meaning a group of people that accurately mirrors the population you’re interested in.

Market research panels, like SurveyMonkey Audience, offer a way to access people you wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach.


Survey panels will also do a lot of the work for you, like recruiting a diverse population to join the panel, inviting the right people to take your survey, incentivizing respondents, and monitoring your completion rate.

Pros and cons of different respondent sources

Existing contacts (customers, followers, etc.)Representative sample of your target market
Pros:
-It’s low cost since all you have to pay for is the survey incentive, if applicable.
-Respondents are easy to reach since you’ve already got their info or a way to contact them.
Pros:
-It’s easy to get a balanced, representative sample that reduces bias in results.
-You can get more granular and specific with your survey targeting.
-Panels make inaccessible people accessible.
-It’s fast. You can collect 1,000 responses in a couple days versus the weeks it might take to get responses on your own.
Cons:
-Existing contacts make an inherently biased sample because they usually already know and like you, so it’s less likely they’ll answer your survey objectively.
-You need to have a lot of contacts to survey in order receive enough survey responses.
-It can take a long time to reach a high sample size. A couple reminders are usually necessary.
-It takes more work on your part to monitor the survey progress, manage reminders, and send incentives.
Cons:
-Buying responses costs money. DIY options like SurveyMonkey Audience are usually cheaper.
-Finding a niche sample can be challenging for some targets. For example, cardiologists may be hard to reach with an online panel.

Ensuring representation

If you’re surveying the general population using a survey panel, you’ll still want to make sure that your sample is representative of the population in the location you’re surveying. For example, if you want to survey adults in the U.S., the breakdown of certain demographics like age and gender in your survey sample should match the breakdown of the U.S. population. The U.S. Census is a great source of this information—see the table below.

Once you know what the breakdown of your sample should be, you can specify the balancing criteria for your sample. Balancing refers to the distribution of demographic buckets (e.g.: age, gender) in your survey sample and is specified when you target your audience. SurveyMonkey Audience allows Census balancing as the default, but you can also use our custom balancing capabilities to set your own demographic distribution. This way, your sample won’t skew to one age or gender and throw off your results.

Targeting a specific group of people

Now, let’s say you don’t want to target the general population, but you have a more specific target in mind. In our dog food example, let’s say the product is specifically for small dogs. If you think about the U.S., pet owners are a subset of the adult population, dog owners are a subset of pet owners, and small dog owners are a subset of all dog owners. If you want to understand the packaging appeal of your product, it makes sense to target this relatively small population.

small dog owners


There are two ways of targeting a narrow population like small dog owners.

1. Choose from pre-profiled targeting options. With SurveyMonkey Audience, we have already asked our panelists questions typically used for targeting a survey sample:

  • Demographics: age, gender, household income, etc.
  • Firmographics: industry, job title, job level, etc.
  • Behavioral attributes: devices used, apps downloaded, etc.
  • Shopping habits: primary grocery shoppers, stores shopped at, etc.

Check out the targeting options we have available for your next market research project.

Note: Don’t forget to double check the balancing options. Even when you’re targeting a narrower group of people, you want to ensure the proper demographic balancing. That way, you won’t end up with only female small dog owners instead of a balance of male and female small dog owners.

2. Using custom screening questions. When the available targeting options don’t get you the exact target audience you’re looking for, you can write your own screening questions to disqualify people you don’t need. For example, if we only had a targeting option for dog owners, but you wanted to survey small dog owners, you could use a screening question to disqualify dog owners whose dog is over a certain weight.

survey screening questions

When you use screening questions in your survey, you’ll need to estimate the associated qualification rate (also sometimes called incidence rate), which is the percentage of respondents who make it past your screening questions and go on to take the rest of your survey. This will help us calculate the total number of survey invites to send so you get the total number of completed responses you ordered.

It’s important to understand how targeting options and screening questions work together. For example, you could use targeting options to specify dog owners, and then use a screening question to weed out large dog owners. That way, only small dog owners take your survey. When estimating your qualification rate in this case, it would be the percentage of dog owners (who you targeted with the targeting options) that you think own small dogs (who will qualify past your screening question).

in-article-cta
Find a targeted group of people to survey
When surveying your customers or followers isn't right for your survey topic, use SurveyMonkey Audience to find the people you need.
Learn more

How many people to survey

Once you know who to send your survey to, the next question is how many people should you be surveying? The sample size of your survey will have an effect on your ability to analyze and draw conclusions from your results, so getting enough responses is key to doing effective market research.

When choosing a sample size for your market research survey, here’s what you need to consider:

Use case

Are you doing a quick gut-check, making a strategic business decision, or trying to get your results published? How you’ll be using your results can help determine your sample size. Here are some sample size recommendations:

survey sample size recommendations

Margin of error

Margin of Error is an indicator of how closely the  survey results from your sample represent the entire population you’re targeting. Essentially, it tells you how confident you can be in your survey results. Here’s how to interpret margin of error: Let’s say you surveyed 400 people, and 50% are aware of your brand. With a margin of error of +/- 5%, you can be confident that between 45% and 55% of the target population is aware of your brand.

If you want a tighter margin of error, you’ll want to survey a larger sample size.

Factors that Influence Margin of Error:

  • Population size: the size of the entire group you’re interested in (e.g. target market).
  • Confidence level: tells you how reliable a measure is. The market research standard is 95%.
  • Sample size: the number of respondents that you surveyed

Margin of error example

margin of error by survey sample size
Margin of Error calculations are based on a population size of 100,000+ and a 95% confidence level.
Dashed line
For more information, see our Margin of Error calculator

Feasibility

If you’re looking for an extremely specific type of respondent, the panel you’re working with might only have so many in their inventory. The feasibility of your sample can determine the max number of people you can survey at a given time. To get around this, you could loosen your targeting criteria and ask extra questions that can help you identify the respondents you’re looking for. Then, once you’ve collected your responses, you can use  filters in your data analysis to see how those respondents answered.. That way, you’ll be working with more data at the total level, but still have a way to see how that specific group answered your questions.

Budget

Let’s be realistic: We all have to work within a budget. The good news about DIY market research and online panels is that they are much less expensive than traditional full-service vendors. Even still, your budget will play a role in the number of responses you’re able to collect. But remember, even if you can’t reach the sample size you were hoping for, some data is always better than no data at all.

Survey logic

Sometimes your survey logic will influence the number of people you need to survey. Let’s say you’re testing 2 different ad campaigns and you used our A/B test functionality (or a monadic survey design) so that 50% of your respondents see one campaign and 50% of respondents see the other. If you want 200 responses for each ad campaign, you’ll need 400 total responses.

When to launch your survey

Is there an ideal time to launch your market research project? Not really. Neither time of day, day of the week, seasons, nor holidays really make a difference for data quality. It’s best to time your project based mainly on your project goals and research plan. However, there are some implications for response volume and data consistency (if you’re running multiple projects or a tracking study) that you should keep in mind.

Response volume considerations:

  • More people take surveys during the day than at night.
  • More people take surveys on weekdays than on weekends.
  • On weekdays, the response volume on desktops/laptops is higher than mobile devices during the day. At night, it switches, and you see more responses on mobile devices than desktops/laptops.