Getting Personal: Part Two

In his monthly column, Brian Gray from Glasgow-based erotic marketing agency Lascivious Marketing offers his thoughts on all things marketing. Following from last month’s column on the many reasons for surveying your customers, this month it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty of asking the right questions in the right way.

Part I of this series can be found here.

Hopefully your customer database has swelled to very healthy proportions. Now it’s time to take advantage of this. Properly designed customer surveys provide a treasure trove of data and subsequent insight. While I can’t provide a full guide to all the elements of a customer research project within a few pages here, I can at least give you some very helpful – and crucial – pointers so you ask the right questions in the right way. Get this wrong or go about it in a slapdash fashion, and you’ll suffer the consequences accordingly.

Build up rapport
How would you feel if stopped by a complete stranger (or via an online survey) and asked a salvo of questions about your sex life? Embarrassed? Offended? Confused? While your customers will be fairly open-minded, given the products they’ve already purchased, that doesn’t mean it’s fine to immediately firing questions at them. Ensure there’s an initial introduction, an explanation for the research and general areas to be covered, and a thank you for their participation. Do this before asking any questions. For extra reassurance, address confidentiality issues and respondents’ right to anonymity.

Always start with more general questions; this allows the respondent to familiarise themselves with the survey process and increase their comfort levels. Once the respondent has answered some of these, the survey can progress to more sensitive topics. The more sensitive the questions, the further back in the survey they should be. When seeking information about respondents’ age, sex, region, orientation, socio-economic group etc. (known as classification data) this is nearly always asked at the very end. By this time, with rapport already built up, respondents will be less likely to refuse such a request.

Domination and Submission
There’s a time and a place to lay down the law and when to back off. Although respondents always have the upper hand (they can exit anytime through the survey), you can still lay down a condition or two. Nicely.

Ensure respondents answer questions in the required manner. Without any such controls, you may very well find out that as the survey continues and the questions become more detailed the respondent base decreases. This has an obvious potential consequence vis-à-vis data analysis.

If you don’t want to be perceived as ‘forcing’ a response, offer an alternative. Provide a ‘Prefer not to say’ option, for instance. Anyone who doesn’t want to respond to one question, can still progress to the others. Some data from a respondent is better than no data due to their premature exit.

Although prompting respondents to answer questions is generally acceptable, classification data asked at the end of the survey is generally left to respondents’ discretion. Their responses to the main body of questions are arguably more important than the final few about themselves.

Watch your grammar!
This question appeared on a UK sex toy website as part of a visitor survey.

Do you know if your partner owns a vibrator?
Don’t know

Who can see what’s wrong with it? Think about the subsequent findings. “X% of those questioned know if their partner owns a vibrator or not.” The purpose of this question wasn’t to ask respondents if they merely know if their partner owns a vibrator or not. What commercial use is there in that? In trying to be friendly and engaging, the subsequent data is arguably ruined. Ensure questions are without ambiguity, otherwise the survey – and the subsequent data – is now open to response error. The question should therefore be phrased simply as follows:-

Does your partner own a vibrator?
Don’t know

Consider possible respondent groups and sub-groups when designing questions.
Give serious consideration to how the research can be used to identify different respondent segments. Rather than simply asking a ‘Yes/No’ question, offer several response options that allow respondents to answer the question, while helping you identify user segments. Change the question to:

How many vibrators does your partner own?
5 or more
Don’t know

By rewording the question and providing these options, the original question is still being answered, but the data can be netted to provide (for instance) the following ownership segments: None, Light (1-2), Medium (3-4), and Heavy (5 or more). Can you now see how invaluable this is, especially when analysing the rest of the data? You can now look at responses to all the other questions based on levels of vibrator ownership, and see whether any key findings are found along these lines.

I can’t stress enough the importance of thinking carefully about the survey design process. The question needs to be phrased properly to avoid response error and confusion, but also constructed to add so much value to the subsequent interpretation of the data. Get the most bang for your buck when it comes to your research!

Of course, there are some questions where a Yes/No/Don’t know choice is the best. Generally, Yes/No/Don’t know questions can be asked about facts, but never concerning attitudes.

Explain terminology concisely
Never assume respondents possess perfect knowledge. Some may not have heard of particular topics or products, while others may have differing – and incorrect – perceptions of what the term describes. Either way, there’s serious potential for dodgy data as a result. To minimise the risk of response error, explain any terminology or concepts in a separate paragraph before asking subsequent questions related to it.

Eliminate ambiguity!
“Do you approve or disapprove of the current UK legislation regarding sex shop licensing?”
The problem with the above wording is that differing reasons for selecting the same response option exist. Consider those who disapprove: some respondents may feel the law doesn’t extend far enough, whilst many other may feel that it’s too constraining. It’s the same response to the question, but coming from two very different sides of the fence. Either re-word the question and response options, or follow up this question with another, asking respondents which side of the fence they belong to.

“What do you watch R18 movies on?”
This could refer to either a hardware device (DVD player, personal computer, mobile device) or a particular format (Blu-ray, DVD, live streaming, tube site, videotape). Ensure the question phrasing leaves no room for doubt.

“How many R18 movies have you bought in the last year?”
Some respondents will consider the calendar year (January – December); others will think of the last 12 months (April – April, for instance). Be precise!

Don’t try and shoe-horn respondents when asking attitudinal questions. What about those with neutral or indifferent attitudes? Herding respondents into a camp they don’t feel they belong to will both result in incorrect data, and cast doubt in respondents’ minds as to whether their true attitudes and opinions are actually wanted. Many respondents will decide to exit the survey. To alleviate this, provide a mid-point; even better still, is to also provide a ‘Don’t know’ option so all conceivable bases are now covered. Your response options should now ideally consist of:-

Agree strongly
Agree somewhat
Neither agree nor disagree
Disagree somewhat
Disagree strongly
Don’t know

A key research objective for customer surveys is establishing satisfaction levels with products bought and/or services provided, at both an overall level and regarding individual aspects. Ask for overall ratings first (preferably quite early on in the survey, and not immediately before individual product or service ratings) as you’re generally seeking people’s initial assessment. Why? Respondents’ first thoughts are nearly always the most accurate. Also, there’s the risk of overall ratings being unduly influenced – perhaps negatively – as a consequence of thinking about individual aspects beforehand.

Keep ’em interested!
Thankfully you’re operating in an industry which is rather interesting! But while the subject matter should keep respondents interested don’t bore them with endless batteries of grid-type questions (such as measuring agreement/disagreement). This is one of the biggest causes of respondent non-completion, regardless of how interesting the subject matter is.

If you have to ask these questions, break the questions up to ease the monotony and to keep interest levels high. Keep the number of statements to be rated in each grid to no more than 10. If more are to be asked, then create another grid. One common method of alleviating this issue is to separate grid questions with a question or two using different question formats.

Keep scales consistent
It’s vital during any research project to be able to look at things from a respondent’s perspective. How taxing will a survey be to complete? Try to keep things simple and straightforward. For lengthy surveys featuring lots of grid questions, keep scales consistent throughout the survey, otherwise respondents have to mentally re-attune, requiring extra effort and time.

So, there you have it. Some quick – but very important – pointers for you to absorb when it comes to customer research.

As you can imagine, there are more elements to customer research than this, such as the project management and overall process. While these may be featured in future articles and at some point on my own blog, don’t let me stop you diving into things in more detail if you want to get to grips with your customers right now. In which case, I heartily recommend “More Guerrilla Marketing Research” written by Robert Kaden (available on Amazon and from other booksellers) which is perfect for small and mid-sized companies. Or you could of course just ask me to help! Good luck, whichever route you choose!

Brian can be contacted at, found on Twitter @LasciviousMktng or phoned on +44 (0)141 255 0769.