Seven characteristics of a great survey topic

The centerpiece of your survey project is the topic you cover. With a compelling topic, you can influence clients, contribute knowledge and answers to tough problems, and build your business. If your topic is repetitive or irrelevant, you're simply wasting your time. Find topics that hit the mark.

Review industry publications, local newspapers, and the Internet for ideas and interesting new angles. Interview your clients on the topics they'd like to see covered. Review the surveys that are currently underway so you don't repeat them. Consult with academicians, industry association executives, civic leaders, and even politicians. From these interviews, you'll develop a great list of potential topics.

Sort through your list and apply the following seven criteria to find a topic your market will respond to favorably:

1. Uniqueness: Is it different? Does the topic offer information on a new area or a new slant on an existing subject? Is it a compelling and valuable subject that would make readers pick up the survey report and read it? Resist creating another consumer price index.

2. Popular demand: Use your market research to determine whether demand exists for the topic. Remember the survey is not for you, but for your clients and others.

3. Practicality: The worst response you can get to a survey report is, "Oh, that's nice." If you are planning to use the survey for clients, give them findings that can guide their future actions. Make the results usable and actionable (for example, that 75 percent of the survey respondents are changing their mobile computing strategies). Many companies will be interested in that trend.

4. Understandable data: Some survey topics are too complex or narrow because they try to gather every possible shred of data. Make your survey easy to grasp, topical, and don't require respondents to go through training to fill it out. Make it simple and you'll get a higher and faster response rate.

5. A focus on the future: Readers want to get a glimpse of the future, so give it to them. When you ask questions about the history of a specific process or practice (for example, outsourcing), also include questions about the respondent's plans for the future (you might ask whether the respondent plans to spend more, less, or the same funds on outsourcing next year).

Questions about the future give readers actionable items to consider, and the value of your survey franchise improves as a result. It also gives you an opportunity to measure how respondents acted when you obtain survey results in subsequent years.

6. Continuity: Choose a topic that lends itself to a recurrent survey. It will allow your clients to compare results on a year-to-year basis and understand how respondents are reacting to issues previously raised. The costs of a survey are higher in the first year than in subsequent years because of start-up expenses. As time passes, the survey process becomes easier and less costly. Plan to run your survey many consecutive years to gain economies of experience. Publishing your survey results annually also puts you in the limelight each year.

7. Targeted topic: Choose a topic of deep interest to your clients and target markets. Stay within your area of expertise so you will be a credible spokesperson on the nuances of the survey results.

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