News for Authors

Why and How Authors Should Survey Readers

by Phil Stamper-Halpin with Alex Alman|April, 2017

With the various forms of communication authors can use to reach their readers—newsletters, social media, speaking engagements, and more—it can be difficult to know what content resonates the most.

Why should I survey my readers?

Anyone who distributes content and engages an audience digitally via newsletters, social media, or a website can benefit from audience opinions and feedback. While analytics and data on clicks or open rates are meaningful, an audience survey provides more in-depth information and better suggestions for improvements (as you no doubt noticed, we posted a survey just last month to get your feedback). Surveys can be helpful to you, as an author with an online presence, in the same way.

Before you start your survey, think about the following questions:

    • Who do I need to learn from? (e.g., newsletter subscribers, website browsers)
    • What do I need to learn? (e.g., “Is it easy to find information on my website?”)
    • How should I distribute the survey to my readers? (e.g., email, Twitter, blog post)

For example, if you host a monthly podcast related to your book’s content, think about what information related to that podcast would be helpful and realistic: Feedback on your topics? The length? The sound quality? The same process applies to newsletters you distribute or the content you put on your website. Start with a solid idea of what you want to learn, and your survey results will be more effective.


How do I create a survey?

Once you’ve detailed what you hope to learn from the survey and set up your goals and expectations, start listing questions and grouping them in a logical order. A traditional survey includes four parts:

    • Introduction—Explain the survey’s objective to your readers, and set up expectations about how many questions it contains or how long it will take. If you’re including an optional survey incentive (such as entry into a drawing for author swag or books) to increase response rate, explain that here.
    • Screening questions—These questions focus on the relationship between the person taking the survey and the survey’s creator. For example, you can ask if the person taking the survey has read your work or subscribes to your newsletter. Screening questions can help you properly analyze the data you receive, as you might want to treat non-reader responses differently.
    • Measurement questions—This is the largest part of your survey, and will include all the substantive questions you’ve created.
    • Ending—Add a final open-ended question for general feedback or suggestions. Thank them for completing the survey, and provide the full details of your incentive, if there is one.


What survey platform should I use? 

There are some great surveying platforms available to authors, many of which are free and offer adequate analytics information. One of the most frequently used services is SurveyMonkey, which offers more than fifteen question types, the ability to add a logo and branding, question logic, and easy links to send out via social media or email. Similarly, SurveyPlanet offers custom themes, pre-written questions, and the ability to upload images directly to your questions.

If you’re looking for something new with a focus on design, Typeform offers plenty of customization options, a simple and intuitive user experience, and the ability to embed surveys directly in blog posts or on websites. If you prefer a quick, informal experience, Twitter’s polling feature might be sufficient for your needs.


Tips for writing good survey questions: 

    • Create questions that are easy to understand.
    • Avoid double negatives.
    • For multiple-choice questions, use an equal number of positive and negative options.
    • Avoid answers that overlap.
    • After a multiple choice question, probe the user by asking “Why?”
    • Avoid unnecessary copy—keep it clear and concise.
    • Have a friend or colleague proofread the questions and check them for clarity.
    • Keep the survey short—it shouldn’t take more than ten minutes to complete.


How do I analyze my answers? 

Once you have survey data, it can be challenging to make sense of the responses. The first thing to do is to consider your participation rate and compare it with your screening questions. If you have a high turnout, most of whom align with the expected audience, you can put more faith in the results. If you have a low turnout or a mixed group of responders whose answers might not apply as well, keep that in mind as you scan survey results.

Clear questions will give you a head start on drawing clear conclusions. Take note of the multiple-choice answers you get—when your responders are in emphatic agreement versus when you get mixed responses—and compare those results with the individual responses to your probing “Why?” questions.

After you’ve analyzed the data, keep these survey results as a benchmark for future surveys. Allow these responses to inform your content, then look for trends in future surveys to make sure you’re moving in the right direction.

Either way, surveys will help you get better acquainted with your readers and their needs, and will also help you make your content as engaging as possible.


Phil Stamper-Halpin is Manager, Publishing Development & Author Platforms for Penguin Random House.

Alex Alman is User Experience Designer for Penguin Random House.