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How to Develop a Community Survey

Conducting a community survey is one of the few research activities you can only do every once in a while. Residents, businesses, and visitors don’t appreciate being prodded on a regular basis (or even every few years), so you have to make sure that it’s performed correctly every single time you send out the ask.

Below are some tips we’ve learned over the years. Following these will ensure that you get more than data – you get an accurate representation of your community’s sentiment. Put simply, you uncover the truth.

Set the Community Survey Objectives

This sounds simple, right? It can be pretty easy if you’re forgetting some things.

For this article, let’s use the example of a community that wants to evaluate sentiment for future tourism and economic development marketing. Given that they have no hidden agenda (they just want to re-brand for the sake of re-branding and are looking for true brand alignment), the number of objectives can be considerable. Some examples include:

  • Attractors by tourist demography/geography
  • Detractors by tourist demography/geography
  • Attractors by new business demography by size/geography
  • Detractors by new business demography by size/geography
  • Attractors by resident demography/geography
  • Detractors by resident demography/geography
  • Attractors/detractors by current business demography by size/geography
  • What the brand means to current businesses/residents
  • Strengths/areas of opportunity of the current brand (both qualitative and quantitative)

And these are just the generic topics. Your research should dive into more specific, more meaningful objectives as well, which will vary by your market.

You should also determine the strategy for collecting results. The goal respondent count should be at least 400, with the goal of being 1,000 or more. This can be grueling if you’re just relying on one channel. Find more ways to reach people than simply through social media – you’ll be surprised at the difference in positive responses when the survey’s not pushed out on Facebook.

Your strategy should also have the goal of maintaining socioeconomic equity. Categories of race/age/sex should mirror the composition of your community and be weighted accordingly.

Eliminate Bias

This can be a hard one, and a major reason to work with an outside facilitator. As a tourism or economic development leader in your community, you should (hopefully) already be sold on your community. You want to see the positives and prove those areas to other departments. However, learning your negatives can be just as helpful.

The bias you can bring to your questions can often be unintentional and result in leading questions and skewed data. For example, asking “How much do you enjoy our parks?” is coercive, where “How often do you visit our parks?” is more appropriate. The latter approach is also more helpful in the end result.

It’s also important to plan for response bias, which is a set of biases that your audience will have that can affect your results. Nextiva does a great job of breaking down response biases on their blog, so I have no reason to rehash them here.

Right-Size the Community Survey

I’ve seen community surveys on both ends of the spectrum: some ask too little, and others were so long that it would surprise me if anyone completed them at all.

Sticking with the same example of marketing for both tourism and marketing, a single survey can be a challenge. Unless the goal of the survey is to only determine brand alignment, the community survey will either be too long or wholly inadequate. In this case, it’s best to develop and promote two different methods of research. For small towns, two unique surveys are a viable option.

Give the audience a reason to care.

Framing the reason for a community survey as a “way to foster economic growth” is the wrong way to excite respondents. That justification might (and should) excite you based on your role but you need to tap into what your residents and businesses truly care about in order for them to respond. You need to get them on your side.

Show your community what’s possible. Show why you’re doing a survey and how that aligns with what your community wants. Give them a reason they can get behind instead of a nebulous purpose.

Explain your motivations in a way that your respondents would care about them. A better reason for them to share their thoughts would be to find better ways to serve the public and those who visit (for tourism) and to better serve the business community (economic development). For example, let them know that improved tourism can fund improvements to parks and other amenities.  This approach is honest, speaks more clearly to objectives, and is delivered in a way that your community understands and appreciates. 

Clarified intentions motivate, and jargon makes people think you’re hiding something.

Don’t just lean on the community survey.

Finally, don’t stop at the surveys. With the risk of response bias, the limited response rate of surveys, etc., you should only use them as a smaller part of a larger study.

Leverage social listening and sentiment analysis to see what’s said on social media. Evaluate review sites or start an ambassador program among your local businesses. These approaches will give you more unbiased truth than any survey ever will.

Surveys are great for getting volume but are only effective at painting the entire picture if used in conjunction with secondary research.

Market research is complicated, and your opportunities to conduct a community survey are incredibly infrequent. Using these tips in combination with an experienced agency will give you the direction you’re looking for from an audience that’s not frustrated by the ask.

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Patrick King

Patrick is the Founder of Imagine and advisor to places on brand strategy and creative. His insights have been published in Inc. Magazine, SmartCEO, Washington Business Journal, The Washington Post, and Chief Marketer, among other publications, and shared at conferences throughout the US. He also has an amazing sock collection.

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