The advantages and disadvantages of using free online survey software

If you search for online survey software, you will find a number of free software products appear at the top of your search results. That’s not a surprise as the availability of free software means that the online survey market has widened hugely to include businesses that want to run one small survey per year, university students, clubs seeking its members’ views and so on. But, how good are these free products? This article aims to cover the advantages and disadvantages of free online survey software.

Using free software to learn how to conduct surveys

Conducting your first survey can seem like an easy task – at least, until you try to frame the questions you want to ask. If you are new to conducting surveys, using a free software tool and trying out a questionnaire on family, friends or colleagues is a good way to start. The questions you are asking should be clear, unambiguous and have a valid and complete set of plausible responses. Free software enables you to test your skills and find out whether your questions confuse respondents or not. In this case, definitely start with free software.

From free to expensive software – what’s the difference?

The cost of online survey software can vary from free to thousands of dollars per year. SurveyMonkey, SurveyGizmo, SmartSurvey, SoGoSurvey and many others are all free to use whereas a product like Confirmit or Beacon would likely to mean an expenditure of $10,000 per year or possibly much more if thousands of respondents are interviewed. The high end products will usually allow programming using JavaScript or similar which can be beneficial to highly skilled teams with a high survey throughput.

Restrictions within the free products

The free products will generally have restrictions in the free version. These restrictions break down to three main categories – restricted features, a limited number of questions and a limited number of respondents either in total or per survey. Of course, if you only want a short, basic survey of 100 respondents, one of the free products will probably suffice.

Free products are not free if….

SurveyMonkey, SurveyGizmo and the like soon start to cost if you want to conduct bigger surveys with more respondents or more questions than the basic offering. This can be frustrating even though keeping your questionnaire short is generally a good practice for online self-completion surveys. But, what about the restricted features? Why would you need anything more than basic questionnaires?

Features that you need for professional surveys

Research professionals have proved that the willingness of a respondent to complete a survey is highly correlated to its appearance, how easy it is to complete, how much ‘fun’ it is to complete and, of course, the length of the survey. A visually appealing questionnaire will attain a much higher response rate, which is, in honesty, no surprise when we are presented with questionnaires to complete so frequently these days. To get these features, you either need the paid versions of the ‘free’ products or professional software products like Snap.

Functionality is important

Products like Snap will have tools that have features such as complex questionnaire routing so that you can select who answers a particular question. You will also be able to do things like randomising responses to improve the validity of your data and link data either from previous questions or from a contact database directly to your survey. These and many other features of this detailed type mean that you need to do much for more professional surveys.

Data analysis and reporting

As you move from the free products to the licensed products, you will find that there are generally far more data analysis tools. Again, if you just want basic counts for each question or simple bar charts, free or low price products may suffice. Many of the lower priced tools will export data to Excel. This might seem like a good option, but Excel is fairly weak when it comes to detailed survey analysis and statistical cross analyses. Pivot tables may look good but they soon become impractical for survey data. Products like Snap have all of the tabulation, charting and high quality PDF smart reporting that you will need.

Switching can be expensive

Another problem with investing too much in the wrong product is that re-training and switching projects to another product can be time consuming and, for businesses, an expensive change. Outgrowing software can be a painful experience.


As in most markets, the range of products is quite wide. If one of the free tools does what you need, there is no need to spend any more money unless you need analysis which is more advanced than that offered by the free products. However, if you are likely to run a number of surveys with larger amounts of data, the ‘free’ products soon become less attractive. If you need to run professional online surveys, talk to us so that we can advise you about what you need.