Phil Hearn: Blogger, Writer & Founder of MRDC Software Ltd.

5 questions you need to consider before choosing online survey software

There are around 100 software solutions for collecting market research survey data online. Many of these 100 solutions have compelling reasons to choose them instead of one of the other 99 offerings. This guide explores the key questions you should ask yourself when choosing the right online survey software tool.

Why the choice is important

Making a good choice is crucial, particularly as a wrong choice can cause you to lose business, make life difficult for yourself or become an expensive mistake. While taking on any new software product takes time and costs money in the short term, moving projects after a bad choice can range from problematic to almost impossible.

If money is no object…

One solution is to buy the most complete solution on the market so that it is unlikely that any project is beyond the scope of the chosen software package. However, buying a racing car to go shopping once a week would be ridiculous. Just as an inadequate solution may leave you vulnerable to meeting client’s needs, a ‘heavyweight’ solution may make your operation inflexible or make simple projects expensive. In some cases, I have recommended buying two software solutions – one for complex projects and another for more straightforward ones.

So, let’s look at five key questions that will guide you in the right direction.

  1. What’s best for me? Free/low-cost software vs licensed paid-for software

It comes as no surprise that my recommendation is to use low-cost software if it does what you want. If you Google ‘free survey software’, a selection of offerings will appear. There are two critical questions to ask yourself when considering low-cost software – is it good enough, and is it really free/low-cost? So, let’s look at those two questions more deeply. What are the considerations? Here is a summary:

  • Does it do what I want now and for the foreseeable future?
  • Am I vulnerable if a client asks for something slightly more complex?
  • Will I need any support?
  • Are there hidden costs?
  • Do the costs become less attractive if volumes increase?
  • Can I extract data in the way I need?

It might sound like I am trying to steer you away from free/low-cost software, but these are all serious considerations. Many low-cost solutions can become more expensive than products with a higher entry fee.

Dearer than it looks?

Let’s take SurveyMonkey, perhaps the best-known low-cost online survey software that appears near the top of any search for free survey software. The basic plan is free, which sounds great news, but I am unclear about what it includes. The GBP25 per month package sounds good, too, although you have to bear in mind that you must have a minimum of three users, and it is billable annually – that’s GBP900. However, you can collect up to 50,000 responses without additional costs, which is attractive. Then, you realise this has restricted features; you probably need the Team Premier package, which is three times that price – GBP2700 annually, although you get 100,000 interviews. It is still competitive until you realise that you will need the Enterprise package to get the full security features, customised branding and more. To buy this package, you must contact sales, but let’s estimate that it is three times the Team Premier package. We are now talking about GBP8100, and that’s expensive. [Prices based on SurveyMonkey website in January 2024]

Am I picking on SurveyMonkey?

The previous paragraph might give the impression that I am picking a fight with SurveyMonkey. But no, this is not an unusual pricing policy. QuestionPro is another ‘free’ online platform, but the costs soon reach around GBP3000 per year. Oh, and if you want the ‘Research Edition’ and security, it’s the dreaded ‘Prices on Application’. Call me an old cynic, but that screams a lot more expensive. However, once again, I am not picking a fight with QuestionPro; these examples are not atypical regarding the pricing of online survey tools.

Start free

If you are conducting your first survey, there are plenty of free tools to give you what you want. It can take some time to ascertain whether there are enough features to do what you need, but cheap/free software is available.

  2. Is it better to have menu-driven software or scripting software?

The topic of menu-driven software versus scripting software is a big topic that I have covered in other blog posts. Generally, learning menu-driven software with a graphical user interface (GUI) takes a fraction of the time it takes to learn a scripting language. I am aware of sophisticated scripting tools that masquerade as ‘easy to use’ systems, but the reality is that you need to learn a scripting language to drive them. Or, perhaps, more accurately, if you don’t need their scripting language, you are over-spending unless you are preparing for much more complex tasks in the future.

Needing the right staff

Scripting languages demand you have staff capable of using that type of software. As developers and providers of MRDCL, the leading tabulation software, we never sell MRDCL as anything other than needing skilled, trained staff. Scripting languages don’t require users who are just computer savvy; they need to understand computing logic, complex commands, structure and best practices – it’s a significant step up from staff that are proficient in using a product like Excel.

  3. Can you compromise or not?

Whether you can compromise is, perhaps, the least likely question of the five but arguably the most important. As a general rule, the more you spend on the software, the more likely it will allow you to prepare and administer an online survey exactly as you would like. To put the point another way – who controls the questionnaire and the look and feel of your online survey? Is it you or your client? Can you compromise? In many cases, you may be able to compromise, but there may be many occasions where you need to serve your customers’ needs in a specific way.

What compromises might be needed?

The compromises might seem trivial. You might not be able to display something on the screen how you would like. You might want to randomise the order of responses to a question or present a series of rating statements in a particular way. All these things may mean you hit restrictions, but they may or may not matter. Companies running service bureaux will most likely be required to meet any need and, therefore, will have to buy a premium product. Considering this before purchasing any software in this market is necessary.

  4. Do you need other functions included?

Online survey platforms come with various other tools; some are free, and others are not. Most allow you to produce the most basic of counts and cross-tabulations, but others will allow you to generate complex analyses, statistics, PowerPoint reports, PDF reports and even online dashboards. Do these things matter to you? If the solution enables you to prepare comprehensive online reporting or tabulations, you may be able to drop another product that you currently use.

Getting the data out of the platform

Another primary consideration is how easy it is to get the data from the platform how you want it. I have seen some companies spend hours reformatting data collected in a low-cost online platform to prepare it for analysis. It might be the wrong solution if this is difficult and prone to error. It is easy to underestimate the importance of this aspect of the software. Can you output the data the way you want it for every project? Some low-cost platforms are flexible, while others are not. However, buying a high-ticket online survey platform may not be any more flexible, so check. Some platforms try to trap you in their software, while others are more ‘open’ and make integration with other software easy. I strongly prefer ‘open’ platforms.

  5. Is support important?

The fifth and final question covers the topic of support. The lesser systems typically need less support, but can anyone help if things go wrong? In my view, there are two types of support. The nice-to-have support focuses on helping you solve specific issues, such as particular aspects of your questionnaire. The need-to-have support is where the wheels come off – where you can’t log in to your account or a gremlin stops respondents from completing your surveys – or, worse still, interviews are lost. These things may happen very infrequently, but is someone on hand to solve the problem if it occurs?

Familiarising yourself with the software

I include in support the matter of learning to use the software. Some software providers will have one basic video tutorial (or not even that!), whilst others will have videos covering every important topic. Other suppliers may say that you need five days’ staff training at $$$ expensive!

Support is important

Support is one of those things that isn’t important until the time that it is. What if you can’t download your data when you have a crucial deadline? What if you can’t get a particular feature to work when a survey is due to be launched? Is there someone to help? The higher-end companies will tend to be far more reactive in this area.

One more question: Does the pricing model suit your business?

I’ve cheekily added one more question that you should ask yourself. I think looking at the pricing model is essential. What do the costs look like if your business grows? For example, if you need to upscale in the future from 10,000 interviews per year to 50,000 interviews per year, how much will the cost increase? So, taking a hard look at the pricing structure is important at the outset.

What’s the right software?

I will declare a bias here as we are vendors of Snap Surveys. I think Snap has its market, but it will not be the right fit for everyone. Snap is a competitively-priced product which uses a menu-driven system to prepare and manage surveys. It is a true multimode platform for paper, CAPI or online surveys, with a plethora of tools for crosstabs, reports and sharing data with clients or other stakeholders – and, yes, it’s an open system if you want to extract data from Snap. Few can match this offering. For many users, it will be the only survey software, you will ever need. Snap’s pricing model does not restrict features and is highly competitive if your business grows.

Need more help?

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