Photo courtesy Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

If there was ever a time when your library would need to survey your community and cardholders, it’s now.

This year has been wildly difficult for libraries and their communities. And the pandemic will be a factor in the lives of our cardholders into 2021.

To prepare our services, collection, and programs, we need to know exactly who is using the library and how they are using it. We must also anticipate our community needs going into the next year.

A customer feedback survey is the best way to gather this data. Here’s how to put one together.

Before you start

The first step in the survey process is to come up with a plan and answer some important questions.

Why are we doing the survey? You may use a survey to determine how people use your library. You may be testing to see whether there is a tangible need for a particular service before you invest in it.

Perhaps you are looking to gather demographic information about your service population. You might also want to ask questions to get at the psychographic makeup of your cardholders so you can better segment your marketing audiences.

Write down your reasons for creating a survey. You’ll also want to write down what you hope to learn from your community’s answers.

It’s important to put the answers to these two questions in writing to keep yourself accountable. The written answers will remind you of your goals as you write the questions, distribute the survey, and evaluate the results.

How will you distribute the survey? Distribution of surveys can be tricky for libraries because our populations are so diverse.

How do you make sure that people from all communities and demographic populations are represented? What about cardholders who don’t have digital access? Do you hope to have answers from non-cardholders? Create a plan for addressing these points.

What will we do with the results? The final step of this first phase is to plan for how you will work with the results of your survey.

Who will look at the results and aggregate them? Who gets to see the results? And who will be responsible for implementing changes to library services based on the results?

How many questions can you ask?

Survey Monkey analyzed more than 10,000 surveys to make their recommendations. And they found that fewer questions get better results. The more questions you add to your survey, the less time people spend answering each question.

To gather more thoughtful responses, you’ll want to use as few questions as possible. SurveyMonkey says an effective survey will take no more than 7 minutes to complete. Their data shows people will abandon surveys that take longer than that.

A 7-minute survey will be about 10-15 questions long, depending on the type of questions you ask. If you find that you need more than 15 questions, consider doing more than one survey.

Writing the questions

Writing your survey questions is like writing a blog post. For the final product, you’ll want a tightly written and concise set of questions. But to get there, you’ll need to get a little messy.

You should approach the first draft of your questions with no limits. Write down everything you want to ask your community about the library. Use whatever format of question first comes to mind.

This exercise will create an ugly but important first draft which you can mold into an amazing survey. Once you have that draft, go back through, and highlight the questions you absolutely must ask.

Be sure your questions don’t ask two questions at once. Doing so will confuse your respondents and lead to less reliable survey results.

For example, don’t ask “How would you rate our branch cleanliness and the wait time at the checkout counter?”  Split those questions to get a more accurate picture of your community needs.

Consolidate questions that are repetitive. You may find you asked the same thing, or very similar things, but in a different way. 

Once you have a final list of questions, mix the formats to create the best results. Data suggests that most of your survey questions should be multiple choice or matrix-scale.

Try to ask no more than two open-ended questions in a 10-15 question survey. The more time your respondents must spend composing their answers to open-ended questions, the more likely it is that they won’t complete the survey. While open-ended questions can be very insightful, use great intention when adding them to your survey.

Where to create your survey

With limited budgets, most libraries cannot afford to pay big money for a survey maker.

There are many free options, but most have limitations for how many surveys you can create and how many responses you can collect. Here are a few that have no such limitations.

Google Forms: Google Forms is my preferred free survey tool. You can create surveys and collect unlimited responses. It’s easy to create the survey and easy to export the data as a Google Sheet.  

SurveyPlanet: Their free version allows for unlimited surveys, questions, and responses.  They also have templates to get you started. Also, you can easily duplicate a survey. You cannot export your response data on their free plan, but you can look at it in a dashboard and use that data to create infographics, graphs, and other reports to communicate the results.

Free Online Surveys: This site has a limited free plan. I’m including it because they offer a substantial discount on their paid plan for non-profits. The paid plan unlocks some great features including unlimited responses and support. Their survey maker also has artificial intelligence to help you build an effective survey.

Launching your survey

Before you send your survey out to the world, be sure to thoroughly test it. You’ll want testers to look for spelling errors, confusing questions, and to make sure the order in which you ask your questions makes sense.

Send your survey to staffers outside of your department and to friends and family. Get as many people to test it as you can before you launch.

Once you’re sure your survey is ready, it’s time to send it out into the world. Email the survey to all cardholders. Place printed versions of the survey at the checkout desk for people who don’t have digital access.

For the duration of the survey, prompt patrons to fill out the survey in every interaction, including at curbside pickup, during virtual programs, and in reference emails and phone calls.  

The amount of time you’ll leave your survey open for responses really depends on your community. You’ll need to monitor the results and be flexible.

In initial launch round, be vague with your respondents about how long they have to complete the survey. You might say “Take a few moments now to give us your feedback.” Then watch to see how well your community responds.

Once you start to notice a lag in responses, you may do another round of promotions that sound more urgent. “Complete this survey before Friday to make sure your voice is heard” or “We’re closing this survey in two days so be sure to give us your thoughts!”

In general, don’t leave your survey open for answers for longer than two weeks.

Have you done a library survey? Do you have other tips and suggestions for creating a survey? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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