Survey vs. Questionnaire vs. Polls

Learn the key differences between Surveys, Questionnaires and Polls, and how and when to use them.

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Defining online surveys, questionnaires and polls

What is a survey?

A survey is a data collection method made up of a list of questions designed to gather information about a group of people.

It's the main source of data and insights for companies of all shapes and sizes - from government agencies and charities to media and private organizations.

A million different survey types are carried out each year. Why? Because they let you understand pretty much anything about your audience, customers or employees.

Choices. Preferences. Wants. Needs. Experiences. Feelings. Their favourite colors and movies and how they like their eggs cooked. All is revealed through the magic of surveys.

Surveys are as flexible as a Russian gymnast. You can add long or short responses and multiple choice fields, as well as open or closed-ended questions, and just about any other question type you feel is suitable.

Run a customer satisfaction survey, do a demographic survey or use it for a market research project. You can adapt your survey questions to your needs, whatever they may be.

customer feedback form

But surveys aren’t just a set of questions that you ask and forget about. It’s about putting the survey data you collect under the microscope and using it to get better.

You need to use all that beautiful data to help find trends, understand the behaviours of your target audience, create forecasts and look at the bigger picture.

What is a questionnaire?

A questionnaire is a set of questions that aims to collect information from a respondent. That sounds kind of like a survey, right? Yes. It does. Hence the confusion. But here’s the difference:

While ‘survey’ refers to the set of questions as well as the whole process of collecting and analyzing the statistical data, a questionnaire is any set of written questions.

To put it another way: ‘questionnaire’ is the content. ‘Survey’ refers to the content, method of delivery and analysis of responses.

So questionnaires might or might not be part of a survey, but a survey, no matter what, will always contain a questionnaire. Capeesh?

Think of questionnaires as bananas and surveys as banana bread. You can have bananas on their own or use them to make banana bread, but you can’t have banana bread without bananas. That’s just plain ol’ bread.

Standalone questionnaires are limited in their scope because they simply collect data, and aren’t concerned with analyzing it or looking for trends or any of that fun stuff.

What is a poll?

Polls are a kind of survey conducted to collect opinions on a single question. Usually it’s a multiple choice question or something simple, like ‘were you satisfied with your visit today?’ or ‘do you think pineapple pizza is an abomination?’

A simple poll

The chances are you’ve heard about polls in the news - they tend to pop up around election time. That’s because they are a fast way to collect and analyze data from large audiences.

But election polls are just one type of poll. Anyone can make one. They are a fantastic survey research tool to help understand people’s choices and measure the success of an initiative.

And because there’s only one question, it doesn’t take Jonah Hill’s character in Moneyball to do the statistical analysis. (It’s very, very easy).

If you need a simple way to gather data about one single thing you’ll want to run a poll. You can do it on social media, create your own online form using a tool like Paperform, or even go old school and call folks on their landline.

You mightn’t get heaps of data or deep insights, but you’ll get a great response rate for the simple fact they’re easy to answer.

Quick comparison between surveys, questionnaires and polls

We’ve been through the individual differences, but sometimes it’s easier to see things side by side.

Multiple Questions
Data Analysis
TimeTime consumingFastFast

To summarize:

  • Surveys are a group of questions aimed at gathering information for analysis.
  • Questionnaires are any group of questions without data analysis.
  • Polls are a kind of survey that only asks a single question.

When to use a survey vs questionnaire vs poll?

Just like you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, you don’t use a survey when the situation is screaming for a poll.

Which tool you need depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Let's go over when (and why) you should use each tool.

When to use a survey

A survey is the best option if you want in-depth feedback from respondents. They allow you to collect data from multiple sources and analyze it with the goal of improving your business, product or service.

With surveys you can use closed or open-ended questions, collect meaningful quantitative data (a fancy term for numerical data like ‘how many?’ and ‘how often’), or qualitative data (a fancy term for non-numerical data like ‘the hair color of your employees’ or ‘what types of t-shirts people tend to buy).

Basically you can design specific questions for whatever your goal may be.

There are types of surveys for everything. You can use a semantic differential or Likert Scale survey for customer feedback, gauge employee satisfaction with an exit survey, or use them purely for market research purposes.

employee satisfaction survey

Want to gather complex data about your customers or employees? Use a survey.

When to use a questionnaire

Opportunities to use questionnaires are more limited. If surveys are your run of the mill sedan you use everyday, then questionnaires are the old Firebird you keep in your garage and only drive on weekends.

Not that questionnaires are that fancy. They’re used for simple cases like building an email list, collecting personal information for lead generation, or accepting payments and donations.

The most obvious (and common) use of a questionnaire is when you visit a doctor. That form you fill out at the hospital about all your injuries and ailments? That's a classic questionnaire full of closed-ended questions.

medical history form

It’s not concerned with gleaning useful insights to improve the practice - its sole purpose is to get an idea of your medical history. Use questionnaires for things like that.

So, as a general rule, use questionnaires when you need to collect simple information that doesn’t require analysis.

When to use a poll

First of all you should use a poll if you want to be President of the United States of America.

Outside of that you should use polling when you want to quickly ask a single question to get a snapshot of public opinion on a certain topic. Ask a question - get an answer - see what people said. Simple.

Polls give you instant results and are a great way to check the pulse of your audience. You’ll see plenty of them used on social media sites like Twitter or LinkedIn to gauge opinions on pretty much anything.

Use a poll when you want a less time-consuming alternative to a survey. They are perfect for when you need an idea of people’s opinion on something specific and don’t have a need for complex data insights.

Also use them if you just want to have fun and find out what your friends think about silly things like horror movies, or what flavour potato chips they like.

Survey vs questionnaire vs poll: examples

Now you know what each term means and when you should use each tool, let's take a look at each one in action.

Example of a survey

The goal of any business is to keep customers happy. You want them to buy your products, use your services and recommend you to their friends.

Surveys are one of the best ways to learn about your customer experience. Use them to see what people think of your business and define areas you may need to fix.

Take a look at one of our customer satisfaction survey templates below:

client feedback form

You can use the template or add questions specific to your business. Maybe you want to learn more about the face-to-face experience in your website? Maybe you want to see what people think of your online checkout process?

Whatever your goal, make sure your survey works for your needs. Not anyone else's.

Example of a questionnaire

As we established, a questionnaire just refers to a set of questions without data analysis. It’s kind of like baseball cards - it’s about the process of collecting itself.

Questionnaires are great for things like job applications, patient information forms, and other times where you just want to collect cold, hard data.

In recent years they’ve also become a popular way for freelancers and contractors to get an idea of their clients needs before meeting them. And their use-rate has skyrocketed in 2021 thanks to the effects of COVID-19.

Check out our COVID-19 medical questionnaire below.

covid medical questionnaire

Notice how the questions are straight to the point? There’s no bells or whistles or delving too deep. Questionnaires are all about getting to the facts as soon as possible.

Example of a poll

Polls are the easiest and fastest way to get feedback and gauge opinions. They let you get a snapshot of how your customers or employees are feeling in real-time.

But unlike other surveys and questionnaires, you don’t have a number of questions. You’ve got one. That means you have to make it count.

A good poll question needs to do two things: encourage people to respond and provide you useful information.

A lot of the time you’ll see online polls used to engage with audiences in a fun way on social media. The best polls of this sort generate debate and healthy conversation and can be a great way to interact with your community.

Something like this opinion poll template below.

opinion poll

Whether you want to see if your political candidate is popular with millennials or what type of lunch you should order for everyone in the office, opinion polls are the best (and fastest) way to get a group's opinion.

Tips for creating your own surveys, questionnaires and polls

Survey best practices

A great survey gives you clear, actionable insight from the responses you collect. The better quality data you receive, the more thoughtful changes you can make to your business.

The first thing you want to do when creating a survey is define your goal. What do you want to achieve with this survey? Spend some time thinking about it. It’ll help you find the kind of questions you want to ask.

When it comes to building the survey itself keep things short and focused. It’s tempting to try and catch every piece of information in one go. Don’t make that mistake. Think of your survey as a fishing rod, not a commercial fishing net.

Also make sure questions are simple and jargon-free. Don’t use abbreviations or acronyms that aren’t common knowledge. It helps to imagine your grandma completing the survey—would she understand the questions?

As a general rule you should use closed-ended questions whenever possible. These are questions types like yes/no, multiple choice or using a rating scale. Giving respondents a specific choice makes the job of analyzing results easier in the future.

Use open-ended questions as a supplement. They should provide further insights and allow respondents to go further by elaborating on previous answers or the entire survey.

For example, you might ask “Did you have a good checkout experience?” with a Yes/No option below. If the respondent selects ‘No’, using an online form builder like Paperform you could have another question pop up asking them ‘Why?’.

That kind of flow should run throughout the survey. Begin with a brief introduction, then move onto broad questions before transitioning to specific details - and wait until the very end to collect sensitive information like contact details.

Once you’ve got your questions out of the way use a form builder like Paperform to build your form and share it with your respondents. You can even customize it to add your logo and brand colors, and look after your data with Paperform Analytics.

Tips for an effective survey

Define your goals: Do you want to learn about your customer experience? Or find ways to improve your products? Asking yourself what you hope to achieve will inform the questions you ask.

Use simple language: Respondents should be able to easily understand your survey without opening up a thesaurus. Keep questions short, to the point and jargon-free.

Stick to closed-ended questions: Try to use question types like multiple choice or checkbox questions. They're easier for your respondents to answer and make future data analysis a piece of cake.

Keep things short and sweet: People are taking time out of their day to take your survey. Don't take up too much of it. You'll be rewarded with much higher completion rates and more thoughtful responses.

Make sure it flows: Your survey should have a logical progression. Start with a basic introduction, lead with broad questions, then narrow down into specific details towards the end of your survey.

Test your questions: Share the work-in-progress with colleagues so they can try it out and provide feedback. Ask them if anything was unclear and use their advice for a final polish before sending it off.

Questionnaire Best Practices

If you follow the tips presented above for surveys, questionnaire design will be a breeze. It’s just a list of questions, so the same principles apply between the two.

Make sure to identify your target audience and what kind of information you want to know. For example, if you’re creating a medical questionnaire you don’t need to know the favorite color of your recipients or whether they do yoga.

Defining your audience lets you ask the right questions in the right way. Keep things simple and stick with closed-ended questions as a general rule—they’re straightforward and easier for people to complete.

With a tool like Paperform you can use conditional logic to create branching paths. This lets respondents hide irrelevant sections based on previous answers, because no one wants to fill out sections of a form that don’t apply to them.

Again, think about the flow of your questionnaire. Like a maths textbook, start with the basics stuff before progressing to more detailed questions.

For certain questionnaire types you might want to include personal questions, like name and contact information, at the beginning of the form.

Poll Best Practices

You know how in The Lord of the Rings the magical ring is called ‘the one ring to rule them all?’ Well there's one rule to rule them all when it comes to polls: make it engaging.

Like a survey or questionnaire, you have to tailor polls to your target market. Think about who is going to answer your poll and personalize your question and answers to suit them.

Also consider how you’ll deliver it. Because polls are so easy to do, there’s a variety of options. You can use social media, an online landing page, or run polls through direct SMS messages straight to your audience’s cell phones.

More than any of the other tools on this list, you need to keep things basic. Anyone should be able to understand what you’re asking and how to respond. Leave complex stuff to surveys or questionnaires.

You should also limit the options that you offer. If there’s too many choices, people will just skim over it and not bother answering. You want your respondents to be able to make a quick decision and move on with their day.

Last but not least, avoid misleading or biased questions. The goal with a good poll is to get the honest opinion of your respondents, so it’s a waste of time if you try to influence responses to get a certain outcome.

Create your own Survey, Questionnaire or Poll

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