Don’t Put Too Many Eggs in the Survey Basket
January 1, 2022

Don’t Put Too Many Eggs in the Survey Basket

Entrepreneurship at its heart is very much about making decisions. If you are running a business, you are making decisions all day, every day. Ideally you’re finding ways to make the most informed decisions possible for the moment. One of the tools that entrepreneurs tend to reach for in the pursuit of informed decisions is the old-reliable survey. Surveys have long been a go-to method for gauging customer wants, needs, and behaviors. While surveys can be valuable, relying on them too heavily can lead to skewed perspectives and misguided strategies. That’s because surveys are not experiments and that distinction is critical. Let’s dive into that more.

Surveys Are Not Experiments

Surveys and experiments are fundamentally different in their execution. Surveys involve asking individuals questions and collecting their responses. These responses can provide valuable information about opinions, preferences, and intentions. By contrast, experiments require individuals to take true actions, not just attest to what they might do or how they might feel. Experiments involve changing variables and observing how participants' actions are affected by those changes. The real-world nature of experiments makes them a more robust source of data.

The Disconnection between Responses and Actions

One of the most significant downfalls of relying too heavily on surveys is the disconnect between what people say they will do and what they actually do. People's responses in surveys can be influenced by a variety of factors, including social desirability bias, where respondents provide answers they believe are expected or socially acceptable. This bias can lead to inaccurate information, as respondents may not truthfully represent their intentions or behavior.

Consider for example a poll of U.S. adults taken in 2000 that found nearly 50% of them said they did not own a cellphone and, remarkably, never planned to buy one. Fast forward to today, and it's evident that the actual adoption of cellphones was vastly different from what the survey respondents indicated. This highlights how unreliable survey responses can be when predicting future behaviors.

The Role of Surveys in Understanding Customer Needs

Don't get us wrong; surveys do have a role to play in understanding customers' needs and wants. They can help to identify broad trends, preferences, and pain points within your target audience. Surveys are particularly valuable for gathering qualitative data and uncovering insights that might not be immediately apparent.

However, entrepreneurs should exercise caution and avoid overreliance on survey data, especially when it comes to making critical business decisions. Instead, consider using surveys as a starting point—a way to generate your early hypotheses or initial insights that need to be tested further. Are you looking to test out some early assumptions? Surveys can be a great way to do that!

The Power of Experiments

If you’re looking to gain more accurate insights into customer behavior, entrepreneurs should complement survey data with experiments. Experiments require individuals to take real actions, providing a much more reliable source of information about how customers will react in real-life situations.

For example, if you're launching a new product, conducting A/B tests where customers interact with different versions of your product can provide invaluable learnings. Similarly, offering early-stage adopters the opportunity to use your product and collect their feedback through usage analytics can provide far more insights than relying solely on surveys. Another great way to gauge genuine customer reaction is by hosting a pop-up event that requires people to make an effort to attend or visit a booth to view your product. The ultimate validation, of course, is an experiment that asks individuals to pull out their credit card or otherwise pay to become a customer. It’s easy to check a box stating that you likely would buy something for $99, but it is much different - and much more validating  - to incur that charge in real life.


Surveys undoubtedly have their place in the toolkit of entrepreneurs seeking to understand customer needs and preferences. However, they should not be the sole basis for strategic decisions. The disconnection between survey responses and real-world actions only illustrates  the importance of complimenting surveys with experiments.

Experiments, particularly those involving early-stage adopters, provide actionable insights that can drive more informed and successful entrepreneurial endeavors. So, the next time you're faced with a critical decision for your business, remember that while surveys are valuable, it is experiments that are often the key to unlocking a deeper understanding of your customers and their behaviors.