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Why Surveys Are Not Effective To Gather Insights On A New Business Idea

There are at least three reasons why surveys are not effective to gather insights on a new business idea. It might be tempting to put up an online idea validation survey to quickly gather some insights to validate a business idea. It is not a good idea.

Preparing an online survey may be the first thing that comes to mind to gather customer insights. In fact it’s easy-peasy: join a free tool, brainstorm the most burning questions we have about the new product and share the survey on Facebook or LinkedIn hoping for a snowball effect. It all sounds like a brilliant idea.

However, there are at least three reasons why online surveys at a very early stage of a new product definition are more likely to produce harm than benefit, and might end up providing incorrect information to guide us through the new product definition.

  1. Surveys are faceless. By hoping in a snowball effect produced by our contacts, we’d be self selecting the sample based on our network. But are these people really the target market for the business idea or the new product? We need to hear from prospective customers, better if early adopters. Any other insights may be confusing, and may let us think that we are armed with information while we’d just be looking in the wrong direction. As an alternative, we should instead make an assumption about the target customers who are most likely to feel the pain we are willing to solve, and meet face to face with a few of them. These are called Customer Discovery interviews (read more about how to conduct customer discovery interviews and what to ask customers to validate our assumptions).
  2. Surveys provide limited information. A good share of what we normally get when interacting with customers is non-verbal communication. We can’t read between the lines when reading survey responses, while we can do it by meeting face to face with our customers. Moreover, most of them don’t know what they want and generally can’t articulate their purchasing motivations or pains. By meeting them in person, we have the chance to let them focus and communicate, go through their workflows and ask for their motivations. In this way we discover new problems potentially more critical than our initial assumptions, all for the benefit of a winning new business idea.
  3. Surveys don’t provide context and can be misinterpreted. When sending a survey around, it’s very common to try to minimise the effort required in order to increase the response rate. We promise “it just takes five minutes”, and reduce the lines of text and the number of questions and options to make sure more people will complete the survey. The problem is: there are only a very limited number of questions we can ask on an online survey, and whatever the questions, it is likely there will be a limited number of options from which respondents can choose. This is awesome to confirm what we know already. But how about what we don’t know? What if the assumptions about customers problems are wrong, and they have some more painful problems to solve? We need customers to tell us about their workflows and motivations, and this needs time, connection and empathy. It needs a clear understanding of the context. Something we can only do through a face to face interview.

Quantitative research methods like surveys – properly administered to a professionally selected sample – are effective tools to quantify assumptions that we have validated before. Things like how many of my customers use Netflix, or what is the average weekly expenditure for groceries are answers that could come from a survey. Surveys can effectively quantify attitudes, opinions, behaviours, and if the sampling is correct, will help represent the broad customer segment.

However, if we want to know what customers are most frustrated about when watching TV or what they find more annoying when shopping at Tesco, we’ll need to meet people face to face and have proper qualitative interviews. Meeting with customers will provide us with an understanding of underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations behind their behaviour. It will validate our assumptions about the problems we want to solve, will inform the value proposition, and at the same time, we will have the chance to develop ideas or hypotheses for further potential quantitative research.

Read more about running successful qualitative interviewswhich questions to ask to validate customers pain points and tips for recruiting customers to interview, which is usually the trickiest part of the job.

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