Surveys or interviews?

One decision we have to make as marketers and researchers of our customers is one that is often made for us.

Interviews or surveys?

I use these two in strategy work. These are the only two I’ve used. There may be other, hybrid, ways of getting your customers’ answers to research questions, but interviews and surveys are the tried and tested ones.

I think of interviews as a way to gather very rich, detailed stories from a select few customers. Less poetically, I have to rely on interviews when my client doesn’t have enough customers to warrant a survey.

Surveys are great at reaching customers en masse. Who has the budget or the leisure to run two hundred interviews? Sending a well-worded customer survey, on the other hand, is straightforward and useful. Surveys tend to get less detailed answers but have the potential to serve up patterns more readily than interviews.

So what do I mean when I say that the decision to go with one or the other is usually made for us?

How many customers we have is the defining point. # of customers = # of potential respondents, however, not every customer is an ideal one, so the actual number of people you want to reach is always smaller. It can get so small that you can’t hope to send them a survey and be done with it. You will get all the brevity of a Typeform response and none of the patterns you were hoping to see.

On the other hand, you can have such a faithful, eager customer base (great news) that your interview list grows unmanageable and you risk sinking all of your time into a massive interviewing project that ultimately yields the same insights as a good survey would.

These are general points, certainly, and each research project differs. Of course, we have the power to choose. Regardless of how many customers we are hoping to talk to, we can say: “Interviews only” or “Survey or bust”. But the tool you use must serve you, not the other way around.

I’m working on a project right now where I’m seeing very clearly the shortcomings and the strengths of both approaches.

Generally, my advice about choosing is this:

For a company with few customers or a very small pool of ideal customers, go with interviews right away. Go for nuance, context, really dig into your customers’ struggles and motivations. For a company with a large customer base, start with a survey that includes a question about a follow-up interview. If the survey doesn’t provide the depth of the insights needed, you can draw from the respondents for a round of interviews.

Ultimately, as long as you got the answers you need, you have chosen correctly.

This essay first appeared in my monthly newsletter sent to an audience of marketers and founders. Subscribe to be the first to read what I write next.

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