Any savvy business owner knows that in today’s marketplace understanding and reacting to market conditions is vital to the growth and sustainability of the business. It’s not enough to know what to do, but also when you know it that makes all the difference.

Your customers represent a significant share of market intelligence. Their opinions and attitudes towards your business are influenced by your outbound activities. Independent sources confirm this trend – Cint found that over 60% of customers tend to be more loyal towards brands that go the extra mile to understand their customers’ opinions. The majority of businesses now understand the positive impact polls have on fans and followers in social networks. Facebook users are 15.6 times more likely to vote in polls than “like” posts [Source: Yaroslav Pankov CEO, Surveys].

Polls and Surveys

I advise all of my customers that creating a poll or survey is an excellent place to start. This type of activity offers the small business owner self-serve market research tools that deliver high quality, actionable insights. Whether you want to poll your existing users or need to survey your untapped market, you can get the answers you need in real-time. With so many free and easy survey applications online, your business has no excuse for not engaging your customers.

I’ve launched several polls about issues I’m already familiar with, but it’s a great way to position your company in a leadership position. Think you’ve got a great online campaign, product or service? Find out whether your target audience agrees. People will make the time to participate in your survey as long as they know it’s genuine and straightforward.

Guidelines For Writing a Poll/Survey

Polls and surveys can help you discover new insights about your industry and engage a larger pool of potential clients, get feedback and refine your messaging. When using any form of survey, be brief; remember we’re all busy so tell what it is that you need.

Keep it simple and clear. Questions should be straightforward and direct.
The shorter the better. No more than 30 characters long.
Use a casual tone. Make the questions sound conversational and interesting.

Basic Tools

Once you’ve created your questions, you can then create the actual survey. There are different survey software tools you can explore to deliver your survey.  Some of the more popular ones are:

Customer Thermometer

Take advantage of free versions to take survey tools for a trial run. While many of the advanced features are not available in the free trials, the vendor may be able to give you access to these features as well.

Follow the Money

Robert Scoble, Rackspace’s Startup Liaison Officer, has put together some impressive lists that I use to follow people and companies who influence trends.

Investors see everything. So, watch what they talk about. Find a list of investors here. Startups often tell you what they are seeing and brag about partnerships, growth, etc. That will let you see new trends before other people see them. A list of 1,900 startups is available here. If you watch journalists, you can often see trends before others do who don’t follow the news that closely. A list of journalists is available here.

Some other Suggestions:

Network face-to-face, local industry-specific meetups and tradeshows.

Check out TED videos. TED aims to identify trends before anyone else and get the world’s leading experts on those trends to give talks about them.

Follow trends and topics on Quora. Quora is a great place to see what’s happening and what interests people.

Google Trends shows how often a particular search-term is entered relative to the total search-volume across various regions of the world.

Identifying online trends and patterns via marketing research is a complex process that requires attention to detail and a time commitment. Be sure to prioritize your objectives and milestones. Ask specific questions, offer valuable answers and inform your respondents where or how they can obtain the results. In this way you will get very valuable information that will help to improve your ability to make better business decisions. Have you used online surveys to find out more about your audience? If not, you should! It’s a great way to “read their minds” from a distance and power your marketing efforts to new levels.