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Do You Know What People Want? Here's A Better Way to Ask Them

Because asking is an art.

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Do you know what people want from you?

I bet you don’t.

For example, consider what happened to a company called VIM & VIGR.

It made compression socks for athletes. Why athletes? Because that’s who its founder, Michelle Huie, believed could benefit most from her socks. This worked for a few years. Revenue rose to the millions. But then things leveled off. Her athlete-focused marketing plateaued.

That’s when Huie started looking for help. She hired a consultant, who researched Huie’s audience. The insights were remarkable: Although VIM & VIGR spent years making socks for athletes, the company’s best customers were not athletes! The best customers were instead people who must stand all day long, like nurses and servers. Once VIM & VIGR knew that, it changed its entire strategy. Sales soared.

Here's the point of this story: If you are in the position of serving people — maybe because you own a company, or simply have an audience on social media — you probably think you know who these people are and what they want. But you might not. You must ask them.

And asking is an art.

I just got schooled in this art myself. I want to share with you what I learned.

You might have seen the art in action this week — it came in the form of a survey I emailed out on Wednesday. I’m building a membership program and wanted to know what my audience (like you!) wanted. How could I be helpful to them/you? What would be worth their/your money?

So I made a survey. Then I sent it to my friend Richelle DeVoe for feedback. She’s the consultant that VIM & VIGR hired and did the research I described above. (Full disclosure: She currently consults through a company called Pen Name. I have many friends there and have been a client myself.) She also wrote about it recently in this fantastically insightful piece about audience surveys for Entrepreneur.

Richelle’s message back to me: Nice try, but this survey needs work.

To give you a sense of how best to survey people, I’m going to share four ways that I messed my original survey up — and how Richelle fixed it.

1. Don’t limit people’s imaginations

In my original survey, I just started by throwing ideas at people. Would you like this? Would you pay for that?

But here’s the problem, Richelle says: When I do that, I only get feedback on my ideas. I never get to benefit from someone else’s ideas!

She wrote this instead:

Do You Know What People Want? Here's A Better Way to Ask Them

“Start with a big open question that allows people to share a solution of their own,” Richelle told me. “You might get 20 terrible responses. But you might also get one response that’s a solution you would've never thought of. Resource the brain power of the people who love you and follow you, and you might find something that’s really cool. This is the magical thing about these kind of surveys — you can outsource some of the creativity.”

2. Don’t limit people’s options

In my original survey, I proposed a few ideas for new services. Then I followed each by asking what people would pay for it, and offered bunch of choices — between $1 and $5, between $6 and $10, and so on.

Bad idea, Richelle said. She instead wrote stuff like this:

Do You Know What People Want? Here's A Better Way to Ask Them

“When we make decisions from a set, we are then limited to whatever that set does,” she said. “It's essentially price anchoring yourself. So once you say, ‘The range is $5 to $25,' then that's the only range that they're thinking of.”

What if someone thinks my service is worth way more? I’d never know, because I kept my options too small!

3. Give people a deadline!

Here was my original plan: I’ll send out my survey, then I’ll… wait for the replies.

But here’s the problem, according to Richelle: When you ask people to do something, but you don’t give them a deadline, they’ll just plan to do it later. Then they’ll forget and never do it at all.

That’s why she wrote this line for me:

“Please fill out the survey below. It'll take less than five minutes, and I'll send a special gift to one random person (maybe you!).”

Three important things there. Give people a specific deadline, so that they act before they forget. Tell them how much time it’ll take, so that they’re mentally budgeting for the task. And dangle an incentive, because everyone loves a reward.

4. It’s about them, not about you

I emailed my survey to all my newsletter subscribers. And originally, I opened the email like this:

Hey all, This isn't one of my regular newsletters. Instead, it's a request.I make a lot of content, but I know that nothing beats DIRECT, PERSONAL connection.That's why I'm working on something exciting...

What was I doing here? I was trying to explain myself — like, “Hey, I know you already get a lot of stuff from me, but I want this to be different because I want to help you…”

Wrong, Richelle said.

If I want my audience’s help, then I need to show that I need them. My original draft took way too long to do that.

Richelle sent me an edit. It was short, simple, and got rid of all my crap. Here it was:

Do You Know What People Want? Here's A Better Way to Ask Them

Quick. Simple. No addressing people as “Hey all”, which is a really good way to make things feel impersonal. (I mean, who wants to be on the receiving end of “hey all”?) Instead, it was just to the point: Hey, can I get your opinion on something?

Everyone has opinions. Everyone wants their opinions heard and valued. There’s no better way to start.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who filled the survey out. The results are fascinating and I’ll have an update soon. In the meantime, if you found the above interesting, you really should check out Richelle’s piece about how to identify your best customers and survey them.

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Cover credit: Getty Images / Hector Roqueta Rivero