Survey Tips

Defining The Purpose of a Survey, and The Importance of Goals

Sandy McKee
7 min read

What’s the true purpose of a survey? It may seem like an obvious question to ask, but too often this phase of planning is brushed over. Each survey you design and distribute should have clear goals by which you can measure the success of your project.

People run surveys for all kinds of reasons, but all great surveys have a few things in common. Great surveys:

  • Have a clear purpose
  • Are easy to administer
  • Are easy to to take
  • Produce accurate data
  • Let you confidently make informed decisions

So of course, you want your survey to be great. But how do you get started?

The foundations of all the best survey projects are laid long before the first responses come rolling in; they start during what we call the Need phase of survey design, and that’s what we’ll be covering here.

It’s tempting to jump right into writing questions and choosing colors, but without a thorough understanding of why you’re asking these questions, you run the risk of endangering your data.

Why Great Survey Design

Taking time to plan your survey design results in:

  1. Surveys that run more smoothly
  2. Happier respondents
  3. More accurate data
  4. Easier reporting

Basically, you look smart because the project goes well and gives your team the data it was after. So it’s definitely worth taking the time up front to dive into the tough questions about the purpose of a survey.

Why Do You Really Want to Run A Survey?

When deciding to run a survey, you need to understand its goals and objectives. Sure you want to ask some specific people some questions, but what do you plan to do with their answers?

Before you create a single checkbox, brainstorm with all the stakeholders involved to determine the exact purpose of the survey, and what it is you hope to accomplish. Once you’ve set out these goals, you can more easily select and refine the more detailed objectives. This helps all concerned parties know what action will be taken based on the survey results.

Questions to Help You Determine The Purpose of a Survey

So that we’re all thinking about the same thing during this discussion, let’s establish a shared definition of what a survey is:

A survey is a collection of questions asked repetitively to a sample of a population to mathematically derive characteristics of the total population.

This tells us that at least some of our goals should probably center around things that our audience has in common (or things we suspect they might have in common).

When trying to determine the needs you’re hoping to meet with your survey, it can be helpful to ask yourself and your team some of these questions:

  • What exactly are we trying to figure out?
  • Why do we want to know?
  • What do we hope to do with this data when we’re done?
  • What kinds of reports or data do we need?
  • Who is our intended audience or population?
  • How are we going to access that target audience?

Questions about your company or brand might include:

  • How well known is our brand?
  • Will customers buy this product?
  • If we offer X benefit, will our employee happiness go up?
  • Will my product do well in a new market?


Setting a Survey Goal

Once you’ve gotten a handle on the need behind your survey, it’s time to identify a survey goal. Remember, a goal is not a single learning objective (we’ll get to those later). A goal is what you’re going to do with the data you collect, and why.

A good survey goal: Use a survey to determine which markets are a good fit for our existing products so we can expand into those markets.
A bad survey goal: Make more money.

The first example mentions the original survey need (expand into new markets), as well as how the survey will meet that need (determine which markets are a good fit for existing products). Of course the goal of expanding into new markets is almost always to make more money, but that type of overgeneralization won’t be helpful farther down the road when it comes time to write actual questions or design survey reports.

Why Do Companies Do Surveys?

Surveys are one of the absolute best ways to get input from potential and/or existing customers before you’ve invested too much time or capital in a new venture. They also allow organizations to keep a finger on the pulse of their current clients or audience so they can be alert to any unusual shifts, either positive or negative.

Some of the most common reasons behind survey projects are:

  • Investigate possibilities for expanding into new markets or market segments
  • To prove or disprove a hypothesis about their audience, competitors, etc.
  • Track customer satisfaction levels
  • Compare awareness of their brand with those of their competitors
  • Measure changes in employee happiness over time
  • Get feedback on new or potential products

Determine Your Learning Objectives

Learning objectives are the specific pieces of information you want to glean from your survey results. Basically, each one is a step that should help you reach your survey goal.

Three is a good number of learning objectives for a single survey, and don’t ever set more than five.

To come up with learning objectives for your survey we recommend organizing a brainstorm session. It should include anyone who will work on the survey, as well as all stakeholders.

Let everyone brainstorm on their own separately for 5 minutes. Make sure that everyone gets a chance to have their ideas heard. Have a scribe to make sure you capture all ideas. Let ideas flow freely – no judging!

Remember that there are no bad ideas.

Make sure your scribe takes particular note of the ideas submitted by the stakeholders. That way you can be sure to write questions that address their particular needs or concerns.

Refining Brainstorm Ideas

After the brainstorm session, take the ideas and begin the process of turning them into clear learning objectives. Look for patterns, repetition, and commonalities. These are likely going to become your objectives.

List your top three, and include a couple that you could investigate but don’t seem to be as high of a priority. Offer the list to your stakeholders for review, and let them choose their top three.

You may also find that the brainstorm generates lots of question ideas too. Take note of those for future work, but make sure you’re only choosing the questions that you REALLY need to ask.

Above all, make sure everything ties back to your original survey goal.

Connecting Survey ROI (Return On Investment) and Goals

Surveys take time and money. If the cost to conduct it is more than what you will gain from it, then your survey may not be worth running.

Therefore, if you can’t determine the ROI with at least some accuracy, then there’s no incentive to take action on what you learn.

This means that all of your questions need to be tied to specific learning objectives. Without this connection, you may find yourself unable to act on the data you collect. This makes your survey just an expense, with no return on the time and money you invested in it.

Why You Should Ask Why

Survey goals and learning objectives are the bedrock of successful projects. Without them you may find yourself sinking in unusable data or unable to take concrete action despite having a beautiful survey.

Take the time to collaborate with your team, explicitly lay out your goals, and then use our Guide to Great Survey Design to complete your best possible project.


Running a survey can be hard. Great Survey Design makes it easier.

Over many years and thousands of surveys, we here at SurveyGizmo have made some discoveries. We’ve compiled our knowledge into this comprehensive Guide to Great Survey Design, which is yours with a simple click of a button:


Start making smarter decisions

Start a free 7-day trial or speak with a member of our sales team.

Start a free trial