Running a public relations program without research is like planning a road trip through unknown territory without a map. With luck, you might reach your destination eventually. Chances are, though, you’ll run out of gas first.

The challenge of finding money for opinion polls and surveys in lean school budgets, however, is often just as daunting. Now, with 40 states in deficit spending, public information budgets are feeling the squeeze, even though increasing competition makes knowing what parents and taxpayers are thinking even more essential.

That’s why more businesses and organizations, including schools, are turning to online research as an affordable alternative to traditional print surveys and telephone polls.

Conducted on the web or via eMail, these surveys can help you track hot issues, test the community’s response to a new bond issue proposal, seek out alumni support, or check your employee’s morale.

“People appreciate being asked their opinions and have things they want to say,” says Stephen Birnkrant, founder and chief executive officer of Amplitude Research Inc., an online survey company based in Birmingham, Mich. “This is a way to get everybody involved.”

For as little as $7,500, for example, Amplitude can complete and analyze an online customer satisfaction survey for as many as 30,000 constituents.

Because the survey is hosted on Amplitude’s secure server, parents and other participants are guaranteed anonymity when they log on to the site using a code name and password provided by the company.

Tracking mechanisms and other safeguards built into the software keep hackers at bay and ensure that participants can’t impact the results by taking the survey more than once.

The surveys can be advertised using normal school or district channels such as newsletters, fliers, web sites, and cable television shows, thus saving the printing and mailing costs associated with more traditional research methods.

And, since Amplitude doesn’t sell eMail lists, use cookies, or record IP addresses and browser profiles, school leaders don’t have to wonder if their survey participants or results will fuel someone else’s direct marketing campaign.

Although many research experts doubt the validity and response rates of online surveys, Birnkrant says the privacy, ease, and voluntary nature of web-based tools typically yield high response rates, especially among employees and others directly impacted by the organization.

“It’s nice to have a statistical response rate,” says Birnkrant. “But sometimes you need to simply reach out to the community and allow them to participate and express themselves, even if you don’t reach the target needed for statistically valid sample. This approach is much more cost-effective.”

Online research tools, whether developed by an outside company or posted as a simple pop-up box on your school web site, also offer round-the-clock convenience for time-pressed parents, students, and staff.

Parents and other stakeholders who don’t have internet access at home can use district computers or log in at the public library.

If you want to develop a web survey on your own, QuestionBuilder.com offers easy-to-use tools for creating and managing online surveys and eMail questionnaires. Prices for a six month subscription range from $29.95 for 150 survey responses per month to $299.95 for 5,000 survey responses per month.

You can also download free software called “Web Survey Mailer System” at the web site for Medical Education Online (see Links).

While getting stakeholders engaged in your school or district lets parents and other concerned citizens know that you’re interested in their opinions, the real value of consumer research is how the data are analyzed and used.

Just keeping your finger on the pulse of your community isn’t enough. You have to be willing to adjust your communications program—and change your organization’s behavior—to reflect what you’ve heard.

Bond issues, budgets, and tax levies for school operations have been won and lost on whether the information campaign targeted the right hot buttons. Teachers appreciate it when school leaders ask their opinions, but if nothing changes or if they can’t see their thoughts reflected in your actions, surveys actually can make morale worse.

That’s why it often pays to have an outside company conduct your research for you, even if you have a Ph.D. in statistics. Like it or not, if you’re not on the payroll, you tend to have more credibility, especially if the news isn’t good, or isn’t what the school board or other top officials want to hear.

When analyzing vendors and software options, make sure you check out the package’s data analysis and reporting functions. Having a lot of data at your fingertips doesn’t help much if you don’t know what to do with it.

The best consultants will help you understand trends, analyze the data, and craft strategic responses. They’ll also provide any needed hand-holding, training, technical support, and school board or community presentations without jacking up the price.

If you’re thinking about launching an online survey, here are a dozen tips to get you started:

1. When trying out new technologies for the first time, find a safe topic or issue to survey that won’t make or break you if things don’t go smoothly. Our first online communications survey for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, for example, focused on how parents found out about our school choice program, after they already had enrolled their children successfully.

2. Before you begin crafting questions, clearly outline your survey goals and decide how you will use the information you receive. Identify the reports you’ll want in advance, and narrow your focus to a few key areas. Try to resist the temptation to find out more data than you really need.

3. Most companies have pretested survey questions in their online libraries. Before going through the time and expense of creating a custom survey yourself, make sure that an off-the-shelf package won’t work just as well.

4. Keep survey questions to a minimum. Amplitude’s Birnkrant recommends using 25 questions or less when surveying parents, 12 or fewer for basic consumer research. “If you have too many questions, people begin to lose interest, the quality of responses goes down, and the completion rate goes down,” he says.

5. Don’t ask “yes” or “no” questions, and have someone with a research background review your survey for bias, jargon, wordiness, and other potential stumbling blocks. Most newspapers write for a sixth grade reading level; you might want to do the same.

6. Run a pilot test on your survey to make sure your questions are clear and to work out any kinks ahead of time. What seems perfectly clear to you when you write a question can take on a completely different meaning to a parent or staff member.

7. Keep it simple, and assume that survey participants have slower computers with outmoded software, dial-up modems, and antiquated browsers. Find the oldest computer in the district and use it to take the pilot survey. If it works and doesn’t drive you crazy, you’re in business.

8.Make sure you have some mechanism in place—tracking software, secure passwords, special log-in names, or other codes—to keep participants from biasing the results by logging on repeatedly. (Rumor has it, that’s how we all ended up with blue M&Ms!)

9.Once your survey is completed, make your results—including what they mean and how you plan to respond—public. Present them at a school board meeting and publish them in your school or district newsletter, and explain how you’re using the results to target your communication program more effectively.

10. Then, as you make changes, remind participants that it was their input that helped shape your efforts. This will not only keep you on your toes, but will help you build a case in support of ongoing research and strategic public relations. Think of it as doing “PR for PR.” And, if you think the results should speak for themselves—forget about it. I find that most people don’t recognize how their input shaped a new initiative until it’s pointed out to them.

11. Recognize that if you work for a public school, your survey and its results may become a public record under the Freedom of Information Act. If you don’t want the results published in the daily newspaper, don’t ask the questions.

12. Finally, keep in mind that online surveys won’t replace the need for annual, or biannual, statistically valid opinion polls. Online surveys are best for quick hits and short-term issues. Online research is also great for staying in touch with constituents on a regular and ongoing basis. However, I don’t think I’d run a multimillion dollar bond issue or choice marketing campaign on data that may—or may not—be representative of the community as a whole.

Related links:
Amplitude Research Inc.
http://www.amplituderesearch.com

QuestionBuilder.com
http://www.questionbuilder.com

Medical Education Online
http://www.med-ed-online.org

iFeedback Online
http://www.ifeedbackonline.com