Bradley Bloch

Industry Surveys: No Longer Just for the Big Boys

Online survey tools make it possible for CPA firms to make industry surveys part of their thought leadership marketing. But while they are more affordable, it still takes planning to do them well.

January 10, 2011
by Bradley Bloch

When I talk with the heads of marketing at midsized accounting firms about their thought leadership goals, industry surveys are often on the “wish list.” The appeal of these projects is obvious. If done well, surveys convey instant credibility, putting the firm that conducts them in a position to generate authoritative insight for both potential clients and the media that covers the industry. In fact, there’s probably no more effective way for a firm to establish ownership of the issues that are important to its clients than to provide data that lets clients benchmark themselves against their peers. CPA Insider™ readers should note that it is just as feasible for smaller firms and medium-sized businesses to conduct such surveys and reap the results whether or not they have a marketing department or marketing personnel.

But if surveys are often on the thought leadership wish list, many times they don’t make it to the to-do list. In other words, while surveys are something that people would like to do, for one reason or another they aren’t thought to be something they can do.

That perspective is understandable but outdated. Historically, the time, effort and expense that surveys required meant that they were something that could be easily undertaken by Big Four and super-regional firms. Twenty years ago, conducting a survey often meant buying lists and hiring a polling firm to call potential respondents at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. But as with so many other things, technology has lowered barriers and price tags; the ability to conduct surveys online at minimal cost has made the once prohibitive quite doable.

With the tools widely accessible, achieving a quality result becomes a test of planning and execution. A survey consists of several distinct steps, each with its own best practices. Deliberately working through each one will maximize your chances for a meaningful product.

Defining the Survey and Drafting the Questions

Much of the heavy lifting required by a successful survey comes at the beginning, when you decide what questions you want to ask and of whom. And because there are multiple perspectives to every story, there can be more possibilities here than first appear. For example, one can survey business owners in a particular sector regarding their exit strategies. Alternatively, one could also survey private equity firms active in that sector and ask about their acquisition criteria.

The best surveys aren’t just a list of questions — those questions have a narrative flow to them. This is reflected in the structure of the questions, in which, for example, a question about an owner’s time frame for exiting the business is followed up with questions about the owner’s motivations to sell, various possible exit strategies, succession planning and so on. Clustering questions in this way makes it more likely that the responses will collectively provide meaningful information.

The first time you conduct a survey in a particular area, think long term: ideally, you want to be able to ask some of the same questions in a future survey. This allows you create comparisons over time — longitudinal data — that can help identify trends you couldn’t otherwise see. It also reinforces the firm’s ownership of and commitment to the industry and these issues.

There are different types of questions, each with their own strengths: multiple choice, “open” (in which respondents are given space to answer in their own words) and Likert scale (indicating on a scale from one-to-five agreement or disagreement with a statement) are the most common. Don’t limit yourself to just one type, but remember that there are tradeoffs: Open questions, for example, can provide rich color in the form of quotes, but can’t be easily reduced to percentage comparisons.

Defining the Audience and Compiling the List

Once the respondent universe has been defined and the questions drafted, it’s time to get granular and compile the list of people to be surveyed. The starting point should be the firm’s own (presumably well-maintained) e-mail list of clients and contacts in that industry. That initial list, however, needs to be winnowed by job title so that only appropriate respondents are providing input. If the survey is focused on issues such as merger-and-acquisition (M&A) plans and company strategy, for example, the respondent list needs to be limited to owners, CEOs and other senior decision-makers.

The size and nature of the respondent list, of course, will significantly affect the number of completed surveys received; the more exclusive the audience surveyed, the lower the response rate is likely to be. Using internal lists of clients and contacts, however, usually means a higher response rate than what can usually achieved with a third-party list — 10 percent is a fair expectation, with a response rate in the high teens and above exceptional.

This is all to say that the initial list needs to be constructed with thought to the number of completed online surveys that will be received since the number of respondents is the single most important determinant of the authority of the survey results. What should that number be? While there’s no hard-and-fast rule, 200 responses is a solid goal for a national survey of decision-makers; regional surveys should aim for half of that. So, working backward, a survey hoping for 100 responses and assuming they can reach a 15-percent response rate needs to start with a list of at least 667 valid e-mail addresses, but you’ll need to pad this number by another 10 percent to account for those people who will opt-out from receiving survey requests from whatever third-party-only provider to use.

Fielding the Survey

There are now a number of low-cost tools, including SurveyMonkey, SurveyGizmo and Zoomerang, that can be used to administer online surveys. You load the questions and the e-mail list into the application and respondents are directed to a website where they can take the survey. The application tracks the responses and allows you to send follow-up reminders to those who have yet to reply.

This last point is important in maximizing your response. Reminders should go out weekly until they stop having an effect — usually after three to five weeks.

Interpreting the Results

Perhaps the biggest mistake firms make when conducting surveys is to create a document that does nothing more that report the results with charts that are accompanied with text that merely states what the charts show. In fact, gathering the data is only the start. Once you’ve closed the response period, it’s important to step back and spend some time thinking about the results and the story they tell. In fact, it may turn out that not all of the questions that were asked resulted in useful data or that the implications of the data become clearer if the answers are presented in a different order than the questions were asked. It’s a good idea to summarize the key findings as a short internal document that can be used as the basis for discussion.

That discussion — and the document that ultimately comes from it — is what makes the survey a piece of thought leadership and not just a collection of statistics. What do the results show about the direction of the industry? What are the implications for company decision makers? What are the things that they need to be asking themselves and the steps they need to be taking? The survey document needs to provide answers to questions like these. Of course, all of this needs to be filtered through the lens of business development. The goal is to make the link between the services your firm provides and the issues your clients face.


Even with the help of technology, conducting and producing an industry survey is a complex task involving numerous variables. Understanding them in advance and committing the necessary time to address them, however, will allow you to add these powerful tools to your thought-leadership arsenal.

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Bradley W. Bloc is president of Athlon, a New York-based consultancy that helps professional services firms design and execute effective thought leadership campaigns.