Multiple technologies are making it easier than ever to get customer feedback.
By now, major brands have embraced the Internet as a customer-feedback tool, using everything from company-sponsored blogs to online surveys to gauge the mood of their audience.
But these tools are also changing PR's role, enabling firms to gather customer information and offer services once only provided by data-driven market research pros.
"As PR firms have gotten more technical, online research and surveys are now tools they can take directly to clients," says Ryan Smith, national sales director for Provo, UT-based Qualtrics, which offers SurveyPro and other online survey products.
Michael Young, SVP at Access Communications, which represents and uses online survey company Zoomerang, says PR pros can do more with online survey tools than just track its clients' customers' moods. They also help staff with program development.
"We use Zoomerang to get feedback on specific training and development sessions we put on," he adds. "We also use it for strategic media relations, including a series of surveys we did with reporters on best ways to pitch stories around big trade shows."
Another advantage of online survey tools is that consumers are now more comfortable with the two-way communication the Web facilitates. "People are willing to do online surveys because it's easier and less intrusive than a phone call," notes Zoomerang survey methodologist Giselle Lederman.
Thanks to the templates and software offered by online survey companies like Zoomerang, QuestionPro, Qualtrics, and others, it's gotten much easier to create and distribute an online survey. "You can customize questions and compile and cross-tabulate the results without having to be an ex- pert in any particular field," Lederman says.
Of course, there's a big difference between just gathering information from consumers and getting the right feedback that can help a client tweak its products or messages.
Vivek Bhaskaran, CEO of QuestionPro, says surveys must be both short and relevant to clients' goals. "I see companies get greedy," he says. "They make surveys too long or include questions about salary that many consumers are reluctant to answer."
Online surveys should take no more that 20 minutes to answer and should include a mix of closed questions, such as multiple-choice or yes/no, and a few open-ended ones.
"If you use open-ended questions wisely, it can add color to the numbers," says Lederer. "[An interesting] recent press release from Match.com [had] quotes from a Zoomerang survey peppered through the story."
The real concern with any survey is getting enough responses. One way to ensure that is to offer incentives like gift certificates. But, Smith notes, "If you have a passionate industry, you don't necessarily need incentives. We do surveys for the NBA. Many customers are season-ticket holders. If you send a survey to 1,000, 700 will respond because they think they know a lot about the sport."
An obvious benefit of online surveys for communications pros is that they can provide a statistical hook for a media pitch. But John Williams, president of Seattle-based Scoville Public Relations, says the media have gotten savvier about surveys and now often want more than simply a results page.
"If you look at online surveys as a news-generation tool, you must put forward some transparency," says Williams, whose firm worked with Kibble & Prentice to turn a survey on staff benefits and healthcare costs into a Washington CEO magazine feature. "You do that by opening up the kimono to reporters to show that the data is legitimate."
Of course, surveys aren't the only tool for gauging customer satisfaction on clients' behalf - corporate blogs can also lead customer-brand interaction. But Tom Biro, director of new-media strategies for MWW Group, also suggests monitoring the general chatter on consumer blogs and Web sites.
"We keep an eye on key blogs to make sure there are no crises and to let clients know what people are saying," he says, adding that these nontraditional online channels allow you to spot problems with a client's products or services before they go mainstream.
Keep online surveys simple and short. You want relevant feedback, not just any feedback
Create panels of targeted loyal customers for regular feedback
Consider incentives to increase your survey response rate
Rely solely on formal channels. Blogs are great for picking up informal chatter
Use numbers alone. Insight is important
Use online surveys for feedback alone; they can also help reinforce marketing messages