All day long, C-level executives make high-level decisions that can have a bottom-line impact of anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars to millions of dollars.
So how can you ask a busy company leader to set aside 15 extremely valuable minutes of their business day to complete your e-survey — especially during these tumultuous economic times?
To get the scoop on best practices for conducting executive-level online surveys, I checked in with Ellen Sills-Levy and Claire Tinker at ESL Insights, a marketing intelligence firm.
Their first comment was regarding the nature of this audience: “At the C-level, you have a number of unique challenges. Besides having a very busy audience, you are dealing with boundaries of nondisclosure and usually not being able to accept anything of monetary value as an incentive for participating in a survey.”
While ESL often recommends that clients conduct in-depth telephone interviews and mail surveys to reach elusive C-suite executives, Tinker outlines their best practices for conducting online surveys.
Recruit a Special Advisory Panel
Rather than sending a cold e-mail survey invitation, Tinker advises creating a special advisory panel of executives who have agreed in advance to be surveyed periodically.
The best advisory panel is likely to be your own captive audience of clients and prospects. However, if you need to recruit further afield, Tinker suggests two approaches: tapping into an existing panel and creating your own panel.
Established online B2B (define) panels comprise prescreened respondents (from a pool of 100,000 or more people) who have expressed a willingness to participate in surveys or customer feedback sessions. Respondents complete an initial profiling questionnaire to become panelists. To recruit for your custom panel, ask more targeted questions regarding job title, responsibilities, and company size once respondents enter the survey. Screen for job responsibility by looking for:
- A person with primary responsibility for the decision
- A person who is part of the team-making decision
- A person influencing the decision
When you get the survey results, sort through the data to delineate the true C-level from others. But, Tinker says, “information from their direct reports can be useful as well, since not only do they know the strategic and directional challenges, they often have a better handle on the nitty-gritty.”
When you create your own online panel, use lists of appropriate publications and business organizations. Says Tinker, “This route can be drawn out and painful. You have to get the incentive exactly right and normally need to have a survey active for about a month — which is about twice as long as using an already established online panel. But sometimes it is the best way to reach a target audience.”
Whatever panel source or survey methodology you choose, Tinker stresses the importance of engaging professional resources to make sure you reach the right people and ask the right questions to get the information you seek.
You only have one shot to reach a C-suite executive, so you must get it right the first time. Failing to have research professionals as part of your team can mean that something critical going out to an online panel is overlooked or that the survey logic is faulty. Either scenario can result in a lost opportunity for you and your business.
Your C-Level Survey Invitation
Tinker advises sending out an original e-survey request, followed by a reminder two to five days later, unless field time is an issue.
Subject lines should be very general so that respondents who agree to participate aren’t biased. For business studies, simple is usually better. For example, “You are invited to participate in a business study.”
The most important point to stress in the survey invitation is the participation ROI (define), what executives will get in return for their investment.
Common techniques are:
- A choice of incentives. Try either a personal incentive appropriate for C-level executives or a donation to a charitable organization.
- An executive summary of the research findings. This is a popular approach because you’re giving C-levels access to valuable intellectual property and industry intelligence, especially since it’s gleaned from their C-suite peers. You can include a PDF cover of the summary report to whet their appetite, but be certain the cover communicates that the report is derived from their input and that of their senior colleagues — and not just another white paper.
The survey invitation should be written in a collegial way. Tinker says, “You get the best input out of people when they regard you as a peer.” The survey invitation should set the tone of “two people chatting about a topic that is near and dear to both of them, not the ‘researcher’ vs. ‘respondent.'”
Other copy points:
- Assure them the information will be kept confidential.
- Highlight the survey deadline.
- Include the survey’s length to manage time expectations, but don’t spotlighted it since that may prevent busy executives from undertaking the survey.
- Include a sentence that the entire survey must be completed to receive the incentive (to prevent survey abandonment).
The e-mail messages should be short and to the point and should conclude with a note on how important the C-level executive’s participation is to the success of the survey and the benefit of the results gleaned.
When the survey findings are complete, send a PDF of the executive summary to all respondents via e-mail with a thank-you note. If it’s important that respondents read the executive summary, call out a few interesting insights from the content. You may also want to use the e-mail to invite respondents to a Webinar discussing the findings. This is a good way to keep executives engaged and interested — and open to future survey requests!
Do you have any proven techniques or case studies for reaching C-suite executives? Send them to Karen.
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