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Paper vs. Electronic Surveys


With surveying platforms such as Qualtrics and Survey Monkey so easily available and (relatively) cheap, there is an ability more than ever to be able to survey customers, clients, and citizens on a wide variety of issues. This means that the ability to survey is no longer a tool out of grasp of most organizations. In fact, surveying can often be employed as a primary tool of researching an idea or issue.


Electronic distribution of surveys is an important way to get the message out to potential survey takers; called respondents or participants. I don’t like the term “subjects” because it makes people sound like lab rats. However, this new way to survey a massive swath of people is still not a complete replacement for older methods of surveying. In the same way air travel compliments trains and cars; it doesn’t completely remove the need for roads and rail.


Ways to Send out a Survey


When I’m talking about survey distribution, I’m referring to the way in which the survey gets to the needed participants. How do we collect the information for the right people? The list below is not comprehensive, but often the options most used.


In Person Survey – To keep with our above metaphor, this is the survey distribution most like walking to your destination. It is the simplest and is best used for a localized subject area. For example, when surveying customers that use a gym, standing by the entrance with survey questions may be the most effective solution. This method, however, does leave something to be desired. The participants are only those that walk past the researcher and many don’t want to talk to the weird guy with the clipboard. Its may also be biased toward the people the researcher was comfortable talking to.


These surveys can be handed out by the person or filled out on the spot as a quasi-interview, with the researcher filling in the answers. But note that in this method, you can’t hand out surveys to people who don’t walk past the researcher. So, if your research question is: “why don’t more people go to my gym?” then surveying gym attendants at the front door isn’t a good idea.


Mailed Surveys – When there is no way to speak to every potential participant (such as in a city or in an interstate client base), a mailed survey could work. This option is useful for the researcher because (so long as you have all the needed addresses) you can be certain everyone was reach out to. This option also is easier for the participants as they can respond to the survey at will. They also wont feel judged by the researcher as they answer personal questions awkwardly outside their gym.


Here’s the downside…postage is expensive. Unless there is some predetermined mailer you can attach a survey to, mailed surveys can be costly. Its always amazing how fast a few cents for stamps can add up when sending out 20,000 letters. For the researcher, compiling the data from hand-written surveys can also be time-intensive.


This distribution format is also going to get more respondents that are older and more comfortable with physical mail. Persons without a physical address will also not respond.


Electronic Surveys – The cheapest option to get a ton of respondents is the email sent with a link to complete the survey. This also allows for more interesting survey layouts that can’t be accomplished on a piece of paper. Admittedly, most of the surveys I have distributed have been in electronic format. Often this is due to the need for rapid response and the distance mail must travel to get to all the needed respondents.


This type of survey is less likely to be used by people older than average, who are not only still less likely to use email, but also to have internet. If you intend to survey an entire county populace, for example, with an electronic survey, know that those without internet will never respond.


It should also be noted that much like mailed surveys, if you send out a survey by email, you will need an email list. Posting a link to a survey on a company website only limits respondents to a fraction of those that visited the website in the first place.



Which Should I Choose?


This question depends entirely on the details of your circumstance, the target population to study, and the amount of time and money you have available.


If your goal is to get a mass of information quickly while acknowledging who responded more than others, choose an electronic survey. If getting a representative sample of customers for a business is important, perhaps use an in-person format and survey at different times and days of the week to capture a variety of different types of customers.


If a survey of citizens in a community is the goal, I would suggest a mixed method approach. An electronic survey can be used in this case as the primary method with mailed surveys used to fill in the gap in groups with low response rates.



There is nothing wrong with an electronic survey when it is appropriate. Much like air travel vs. train or car travel, you choose the right method for your circumstances.


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