The hell with being “creative”. Try a questionnaire

Some techniques are so deceptively simple and obvious that people ignore them. They’re not “creative” enough. Well, screw “creative”. I like things that work. And questionnaires work like a charm

A while back Gail Brennan in Australia sent me a question about questionnaire responses.

Nobody knows more about this than my old colleague Andrew Boddington, one of the best direct marketers I know, so after giving my opinion, I referred her to him..

Below, after one or two comments from me, is his quick guide to what you should know about the subject.

One reason the questionnaire works so well is that it is very unthreatening.

People are often nervous when they realise you’re selling something. But they love to give you their opinions.

You just have to ask nicely and often amazingly high percentages will reply. By “amazing” I mean 50% and more.

When they do reply, this gives you an excuse to talk to them again … and again … and again.

Here is Andrew’s advice for you:

  1. People agonise over making the survey short for maximum response, but do not fear a long survey. As long as the questions seem ‘natural and logical’ to the reader, they will complete it, once the first few questions have been answered.
  2. If you have some questions which are more critical than others, make sure the survey has clear sections – the first with the main questions, then the next introduced with the words “You do not have to answer these, but if you do, it’ll mean x, y and z benefit…and will only take a few minutes more…”
  3. Response can be increased by a variety of details. A lot depends on the honesty in the introduction, why you are doing the survey, what is in it for the responder (altruism, sense of helping self or fellows, and maybe even the chance to win something in a free draw, as a gesture of thanks), explaining how the results will be used, and even how they can see a copy of the results (usually a simple summary).
  4. People love being asked for their opinion (‘your opinion matters to us’), so use flattery to increase participation.
  5. Make the introduction from someone they already might know and respect, rather than have no name at all. Even have it look like a letter, with a signature and photo for a touch of warmth.
  6. Much depends on the layout, the clarity of type face and typography, and the use of colours, tints and boxed sections make it look less daunting.
  7. It sounds radical, but question how much response is really needed. Statistically a lower response sample may be fine, so that the views are representative.
  8. Try a reminder mailing/emailing after the initial response has dried up from the first survey. Non-responders are not against responding, they just have busy lives, are lazy, like all human beings, so a courteous reminder will typically get half as much response again.
  9. Consider how/when the survey gets handed over, emailed or mailed. Is there a better moment, so they’ll be more disposed to take part?

To demonstrate just how powerful an imaginative questionnaire can be, I will take you back a good 25 years to when I was handling the American Express business.

One big challenge was to get people to move up from the basic green card to the more expensive gold card. I was pretty good at the copy for that – or so I thought.

It turned out I wasn’t not half as good as Steve Harrison and his art director (to my shame I can’t recall who that was). Instead of trying to beat my direct mail letters, they tried a different approach.

They put together a mailing that simply asked people – in a very appealing way – whether they wanted the Gold card or not, and why.

It slaughtered all my efforts. I think they got at least ten times more responses than me and as much as twenty times more to some files.

Of course, I was going for  sales, whilst they just wanted a response. But that initial response opened the door to lots of highly relevant follow-ups aimed at segments of the respondees; and it is relevance – “is this for me?” – not “creativity” that makes the big difference.

I have copied their idea more times than I am willing to admit. And more recently we have been busy segmenting our own list. The initial results are fascinating.


About the Author


In 2003, the Chartered Institute of Marketing named Drayton one of 50 living individuals who have shaped today’s marketing.

He has worked in 55 countries with many of the world’s greatest brands. These include American Express, Audi, Bentley, British Airways, Cisco, Columbia Business School, Deutsche Post, Ford, IBM, McKinsey, Mercedes, Microsoft, Nestle, Philips, Procter & Gamble, Toyota, Unilever, Visa and Volkswagen.

Drayton has helped sell everything from Airbus planes to Peppa Pig. His book, Commonsense Direct and Digital Marketing, out in 17 languages, has been the UK’s best seller on the subject every year since 1982. He has also run his own businesses in the U.K., Portugal and Malaysia.

He was a main board member of the Ogilvy Group, a founding member of the Superbrands Organisation, one of the first eight Honorary Fellows of the Institute of Direct Marketing and one of the first three people named to the Hall of Fame of the Direct Marketing Association of India. He has also been given Lifetime Achievement Awards by the Caples Organisation in New York and Early To Rise in Florida.

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