How To Know What Your Audience Wants: Survey Them


During an election year, the media is poll happy. You can't open your tablet, check your phone or watch TV without hearing something about polls during the year running up to an election. 

A survey (or its quicker, less complicated cousin, the poll) is a critical device in a marketer's toolbox. You can throw things at your audience and hope some of it sticks, but a well-designed survey should make cloudy data clear to formulate strategy and decision-making in the future. While no survey is foolproof, it's certainly better than carpool line chatter.  

A side benefit of surveys is that when you ask your audience their opinion, it shows you care what they think and that you are (presumably) going to act on their responses.

Response rates

Survey response rates differ for internal and external audiences. "Internal surveys will generally receive a 30-40% response rate (or more) on average," says "Compared to an average 10-15% response rate for external surveys." Internal audiences have more motivation than external ones. That's why it's much more difficult to survey families who have declined your school's offer of admission — there's nothing in it for them.

Private school surveys

There are numerous surveys that are valuable to schools such as parent satisfaction surveys, enrollment surveys, and donor surveys. You need to be careful not to overload your constituents with surveys too often to ensure they don't get "survey fatigue." This is likely to happen when offices—say admissions and development—both want to gather data and send surveys out in rapid succession, unaware that the other office is sending one as well. Either spread the surveys out or combine them to avoid this problem. Let's look at the benefits of a few kinds of surveys.

Parent satisfaction surveys

Parent satisfaction surveys measure how well you're meeting parents' expectations which are excellent for retention, marketing, and communications. Sent annually, it can show what you're doing right, what needs improvement, and where there are gaps in information and communication with this, your most important audience. 

Enrollment surveys

Enrollment surveys measure how and why your school appeals to a certain audience, who that audience is, and how to market to that audience. It also tells you who you are not right for which is equally valuable in marketing. (Your school isn't right for everyone. Really. It's not.) It tells you where you missed the boat in the admissions process, in branding, in marketing yourself against your competitors, or in other areas you least suspected. 

Magazine surveys

Magazine surveys measure who is reading the publication and where they are when they're reading, what they're reading (or not), and what they would like to be reading about. A great deal of time and effort goes into your magazine, so make it count by delivering content that is read, valued and boosts your brand.

Message testing surveys

Message testing surveys measure how well your brand messages are resonating with your constituents. It's great to conduct a survey like this when your brand is new, when you're not sure it's doing its job or when it's older and may be in need of a refresh.

The list below will get you started thinking about who to survey and what questions to ask. Many surveys mentioned are fee-based, but you can create and conduct your own survey using Survey Monkey. I have used Survey Monkey often and think it makes it easy for us "non-pollster" types. They have a free service that might well serve your needs and a premium service that delivers more sophisticated charts and tables and allows you to export your results for sharing. 

Do you have any survey sources you'd like to share? Please put them in the comments.


Independent School Management (ISM)


Applied Educational Research Enrollment Survey


NAIS Parent Satisfaction Survey Sample (no login needed)

Enrollment Catalyst Parent Satisfaction

Harvard School of Education Survey (geared toward public schools, but a question might be right for you)


Gail Perry "Try Asking Donors Feedback They'll Love"  that references many other donor surveys

Boomerang "23 Questions to Ask Donors and Prospects"

Nonprofit Marketing Guide "What Questions Do You Include in Donor Surveys?"


Stacy Jagodowski "Making the Most of Your Magazine" for InspirED

InspirED By Example George School Magazine

CASE Member Magazine Survey

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