The Surprisingly Simple Secret to Knowing What Your Readers Want

The Surprisingly Simple Secret to Knowing What Your Readers Want

Does this sound familiar?

You spend hours brainstorming irresistible topics for your blog – then the resulting posts get totally ignored.

Another time, you throw out some random idea that popped into your head – and the comments go wild.

Or how about this…

You bust your butt creating an awesome freebie to attract email subscribers, but when you put it out into the world… crickets.

Let’s face it: You’re no mind reader.

But if you’re wondering what topics your readers are longing for you to write about, what freebie would attract subscribers in droves, or what product readers would beg you to buy, there is a way.

And it’s so obvious, you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of it sooner.

The “Why Didn’t I Think of That?” Way to Get Inside Your Readers’ Heads

So, are you ready to learn the big secret to discovering exactly what readers want?

Here it comes…

You ask them.

That’s it. Pretty simple, right?

Of course, as a blogger, you can’t just reach over, tap your reader on the shoulder and ask them what they think.

The smart approach is to use an online survey.

The Simple Survey That Told Me Exactly What Content to Create Next

I realized that when my kid goes to kindergarten in the fall, I’ll finally have enough time to create a new product for writers.

But what to create? I was stumped.

So I designed a SurveyMonkey survey with six questions I hoped would spark some insights.

I posted the survey to Twitter and Facebook and sent it to my email subscribers, offering a suite of my e-books to one random respondent as an incentive to fill out the form.

Within a few days I had 380 responses and was shocked to discover that many of my readers wanted scripts, templates, and workbooks – products I had never even considered creating.

I also got requests for an email mentoring program, which I established the next week… the program filled within two hours.

Free Survey Services to Get You Started Fast

Want to mine your readers’ brains for ideas and insights like this?

Just sign up for a free survey service like the ones below, create a new survey file, and let’s get started.

  • SurveyMonkey is free for up to 10 questions and 100 responses. If you get more responses than that, you can upgrade for $26 per month. (This is the one I normally use.)
  • PollDaddy doesn’t limit the number of questions or respondents you can have, but if you want to export your results, you’ll need to upgrade to PollDaddy Pro, which is $200 per year. (I’ve used PollDaddy in the past and have been happy with it.)
  • KwikSurveys has a free option that doesn’t limit the number of questions or responses, and it lets you export the results.
  • FreeOnlineSurveys lets you create a survey of up to 20 questions and receive up to 50 responses over a 10-day period for free. If you get more responses, it costs $19.99 per month to upgrade.

Something to keep in mind with the ones that limit your responses – if you go over the limit, the system will store the extra responses for you, so they’re available if you decide to upgrade. It will not delete any responses!

Also, if you need to upgrade, you can pay for one month, get your results, and then cancel the plan if you don’t think you’ll be doing another survey soon.

How to Prepare Questions That Unlock Your Readers’ Deepest Desires

Shortly, I’ll give you some specific questions you can use to get inside your readers’ heads.

But first, let’s look at some useful tips for survey-writers everywhere.

Tip #1: Go broad not narrow.

Here’s a secret known by the best interviewers: Avoid asking yes/no questions unless you really, really have to.

When you make respondents choose between those two answers, that’s all you’ll get – a yes or no, with no insights to help you interpret them, and no leeway for your readers to choose something else entirely.

Remember, you don’t want to stay stuck in the box of what you already know – you want to learn from your readers. So you need to invite, and be ready for, unexpected answers.

Multiple-choice and essay questions are a great way to get them.

That means, instead of:

Do you like when I post about puppies? Yes/No

Try:

Which type of post do you want to see more of? Puppies/Cat videos/Gossip/Scandal/OtherΒ (Choose one.)Β 

Then – and this is really important – create an “Other” essay box where respondents can enter an answer you don’t have on the list.

(You can limit the size of the essay box so you don’t get an actual, well, essay.)

Tip #2: Force them to prioritize.

On a multiple-choice question like the previous example, you may be tempted to let readers choose more than one option.

After all, what if they like puppies and scandal? Or cats and gossip?

But allowing multiple answers is usually a big mistake.

In my experience, when you offer people more than one option, they don’t really think about it – they just choose everything that looks even remotely interesting.

For example, in the survey I ran for my blog readers and email subscribers, I let them choose as many options as they wanted for the question “What topics would you most like me to address in a product such as an e-book or e-course?”

And I should have predicted that most people wanted a little of everything: motivation, beginners’ issues, networking, marketing, and more. So it was difficult to tease out what they really desired.

Make your readers prioritize – because that’s what you’ll have to do when you start creating your content and products!

Tip #3: At some point, turn them loose.

Try including one question where you provide a longer essay box and let your readers go wild with their suggestions.

This is where I got the requests for workbooks and an email mentoring program!

If I hadn’t included this free-for-all question, I would never have noticed these needs.

The 4 Questions That Will Get You the Answers You Need

Now that you understand the basics of how good survey questions work, let’s look at some specific questions that will yield answers you can use.

Because the wrong queries can get you useless results. For example, asking “Hey, what do you guys want from me?” will elicit less-than-illuminating answers. (“A massage!” “All your products for free!” “Fish and chips!”)

As a freelance writer who has interviewed hundreds of people, I’ve discovered several types of questions that always get well-thought-out, insightful responses.

Question #1: “What is your biggest challenge when it comes to X?”

If you’re wondering what kinds of information products to create, or what to tackle in your blog posts, this question will help you figure out what’s bugging your readers. Solve these problems with your offerings and you’re golden.

Say you blog about fitness for women over 45 years old. You ask, “What is your biggest challenge when it comes to keeping fit?” and a good portion of your readers respond that their biggest problem is that they’re embarrassed to exercise in public, especially at the local gym filled with 20-year-old hardbodies.

What a treasure trove of information for you to work with! You can mine this information (more on that later) to come up with blog posts, subscriber incentives, and new information products that help your readers with their most-pressing problems.

Question #2: “What level are you at in X (newbie, intermediate, pro)?”

Asking your readers where they’re at, in terms of your blog topic, will help you figure out how much handholding you need to provide and what kinds of blog posts and products will fare best with your audience.

Let’s say you run a blog on home repair. You ask your survey respondents how experienced they are in DIY home projects and discover that the majority of them are at an intermediate level. Now you know you don’t need to explain basic terms, and can post more sophisticated DIY projects instead of sticking to basic how-tos.

Question #3: “What’s missing out there? What product/service do you wish someone would create?”

Here, you let your readers help you out with market research. What does your readership crave that you and your competitors aren’t offering?

For example, in my survey I asked the following: “What topics related to freelance writing do you feel are most needed in the marketplace right now? Is there anything you don’t see covered enough? Anything missing altogether?”

The two winners: networking and the business of freelance writing. That brings up all kinds of cool ideas for posts and books.

Question #4: “How do you prefer to learn (watching, listening, reading, doing, other)?”

This is a sneaky way to learn whether your readers prefer traditional blog posts, videos, or podcasts – or whether they need some sort of e-course or mentoring that includes assignments and accountability.

I was so glad I asked this question because I’d been feeling like a slacker for avoiding videos and podcasts. It seems everyone’s plugging these formats, but hey – I’m a writer, not a movie star!

When I saw that my readers overwhelmingly prefer to learn by reading and doing, I realized that all the effort that would have gone into other blog post formats would be better spent writing more traditional posts, e-books, and courses.

Asking how your readers learn best will help you focus your efforts where they’re most appreciated.

How to Make Sure Everyone Knows about Your Survey

The best-designed survey in the known universe won’t help you if only three people fill it out. (“Hey, one-third of my readers want blog posts on Elvis sightings!”)

You want to get a broad sampling of your target readers – not the passionate views of a small few.

Here’s how to spread the word about your survey, and then we’ll talk about how to entice readers to take action and actually fill it out:

  • Use social media. If you’re on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or LinkedIn, let your friends and followers know you’re running a survey. I’ve heard that you’ll get more social shares if you actually ask for them, so try including “Please RT” in your tweets. And social updates are easily missed, so don’t be afraid to post multiple times – just maintain a healthy balance with other content.
  • Mail your subscribers. You do have a mailing list, right? Send out an email to your subscribers asking them to take the survey. Tell them how much you care about what they think. Explain the benefit of responding – more content tailored to their needs. Remember, the people on your list are your core audience.
  • Tell your BFFs. Your friends know people who know people who know people. And those people know people. So email your buds and ask them to tell their networks about your survey.
  • Write a blog post. You likely have people who read your blog but aren’t on your mailing list, so you can reach these readers by writing a blog post about your survey. Instead of a simple announcement, try to wrap the news of your survey in a post that has independent value.

The more of these tactics you use, the more results you should garner.

How to Get More Responses Than You Could Reasonably Hope For

Now everyone knows about your survey – but why the heck would they take time away from Project Runway to fill it out?

The following are some tactics to entice, sway, and persuade people to spend a few minutes helping you out:

Tactic #1: Offer a goodie.

Turn your survey into a contest by promising that one random respondent will win a cool prize from you. Then use random.org to choose the lucky winner, and later, you can announce the winner to your mailing list.

And don’t worry, you don’t need to spend a metric boatload of money on a prize. When I gave away a collection of every PDF book I’ve published, it cost me nothing but had a big impact.

Another option is to offer every respondent a little incentive, such as some exclusive content. Just make sure the process is automated so you’re not emailing 500 e-books or special reports by hand.

Tactic #2: Appeal to their better side.

Here’s something that may surprise you: People have a natural desire to help. So explain your reasons for asking for their time and many will help on that basis alone.

When I emailed my list, I was honest about the fact that I couldn’t decide what new products to create after my kid goes off to kindergarten. I asked my readers to help me out, and help me they did.

Caveat: Your reason for the survey better be a good one. Running a survey because you want to figure out how to attract more advertisers, sell more books, or generally pad your bottom line isn’t going to convince anyone to help you. When you take a poll, it needs to be because you want to help your readers.

If helping them helps you, that’s fine. But it can’t be the main or the only reason.

Tactic #3: Give them a voice.

People love to be heard, and a survey is a perfect chance for your readers to let you know what they think – good or bad.

In your emails and social media, frame your request as a chance for survey respondents to voice their opinions, be heard, and make a difference.

A bonus is that readers will feel more bonded to you if they feel they’ve helped influence the direction of your blog or your business.

Tactic #4: Keep it short.

With many people complaining they barely have time to brush their teeth (eww!), you’d probably be laughed out of town for asking if they had 30 spare minutes to answer some questions.

So keep your survey short – and let your readers know how short it is.

My survey contained just six questions, and one of them was the respondent’s name and email address (to be entered into the contest).

So I asked my readers if they would spend just five minutes to help me out and have their voices heard.

And 380 of them were happy to do just that.

Tactic #5: Give them a deadline.

Running a contest or offering a freebie gives you a great reason to impose a deadline on survey responses. If you don’t have a cutoff date, answers will endlessly trickle in, and you will never know when you’re finally ready to start sorting through the responses.

I like to keep my surveys open for less than a week – because I’m an impatient person. But really, there’s no reason to drag it out. People should be able to get to and complete your survey within a few days, especially if you let them know that you’ve kept it short.

What to Do with All That Juicy Data

So you’ve closed your survey and now you’ve got a (hopefully) big list of responses.

Good for you!

But what on earth do you do with all the info you’ve collected?

Here’s how to get down and dirty with all that data…

1) Look for multiples.

This is an easy one.

If you notice many people asking for the same thing – bingo.

For example, you might see dozens of people requesting a product you’d never even thought of before.

In my survey, I got numerous requests for workbooks, templates, and scripts, which shows me these would be good products to work on right away.

2) Mix and match the results.

Let’s say you run a food blog and you asked your readers a multiple-choice question about what kind of cooking they’re interested in. The top two responses are gluten-free baking and dairy-free recipes – so it’s reasonable to assume that your audience contains many readers who have food allergies or who are gluten-free or dairy-free for health reasons.

However, that insight alone might not be enough to create knockout content for your audience. It’s a little too broad to be interesting.

So try combining this information with results from your other questions to narrow the focus.

For example, let’s say you also discover that more than 50% of your readers have kids under the age of five.

Think what ideas that spurs for blog posts and information products: Baking for the allergic child? Kid-friendly gluten-free treats? A giveaway of a cookbook for lactose-intolerant kids?

So put on your detective hat (Lookin’ sharp!) and see what you can decipher from your survey responses. Mix and match the insights then brainstorm posts and products to fit.

3) Don’t ignore the outliers.

It’s tempting to consider only what the majority of your readers want, but the outliers can also spur great ideas.

For example, out of my 380 respondents, a whopping two of them mentioned in the “tell me anything” essay box that they’d like to see an e-course that spans six months or more.

That doesn’t mean the other 378 are not interested in a super-long, comprehensive class – just that they didn’t think of it at the time of the survey, or that they have other priorities right now.

Personally, I think this is an awesome idea that could get a lot of traction. And even if I don’t implement it right away, it’s something I could test in my next survey.

4) Keep an open mind.

Even if you think you already know what your readers want, be prepared for your survey to surprise you.

Remember the example I gave above where the women over 45 said their biggest fitness challenge was being embarrassed to exercise at the gym? If you’re like me, you probably would have expected to hear moans about hormonal weight gain, and aching joints that make it difficult to hit the treadmill. But you’d have been wrong.

And that’s what you want: To be shocked and stunned by the answers you get. Your respondents are giving you ideas on what they really want.

So don’t throw away responses because they don’t fit in with your preconceived notion of what your readers need.

The Results Are In – Here’s What to Do Next

Whew! You conducted your survey, got a bazillion responses (woot!), and pored over the results to peer into your readers’ minds.

Your brain is exploding with new ideas for what to create next.

But before you start working on new content, the following steps will help you wring the last drops of value from your hard work.

1) Give them the scoop.

If people have responded to your survey, they’ll naturally be curious about the results.

So write to your readers and let them know what you discovered – and how you’ll use the information.

For example, you may announce that you’re creating a product they wanted, or working on blog posts on topics they suggested.

This is a powerful way to start what marketer Sean D’Souza of Psychotactics calls the “pre-sell” – dropping hints about your products and services before you’ve even created them.

This is part of a long-term, slow marketing process that leads up to your eventual launch.

2) Fill in the gaps.

Sometimes the survey responses will show you not only what your readers are craving from you, but also how you can better promote what you already offer.

For instance, in my survey, I noticed something horrifying: Many, many readers asked for products I already have.

I say it was horrifying because I like to consider myself a skilled marketer – but here were 380 writers, most of whom read my blog or are on my mailing list, who didn’t know about my core products!

Your survey is a great opportunity to find out whether your readers are up-to-date on your offerings, and to remedy it if not.

In the follow-up email I sent to my list about the survey results, I mentioned that many respondents requested the same three products over and over – and hey, whaddaya know, I already have those and here are the links!

Are You Ready to Discover What Your Readers REALLY Want?

If you truly want your blog to thrive, you must get inside the heads of your readers.

But mind reading is a trick few bloggers have mastered.

So they just guess what their readers want and hope they’re not too far off the mark.

But a well-designed survey eliminates the guesswork and can reveal a treasure trove of valuable information about your audience’s wants and needs.

Sure, it takes a little work. But the insights gained from a short survey might just lead to the big break your blog has been waiting for.

So don’t hem and haw and put it off until, like, never.

Instead, accept the following assignment:

Take 30 minutes right now to open an account at SurveyMonkey (or one of the other free services) and brainstorm 5-10 questions you’d like to ask your readers.

Follow through, and you’ll soon have the information you need to start creating the content (and maybe even the products) your readers are secretly crying out for.

Because if you really want to know what’s going on inside people’s heads, there’s only one way to know for sure.

Go ahead and ask.

About the Author: Linda Formichelli has been a full-time freelance writer since 1997, writing for magazines like Redbook and Writer’s Digest and for corporate clients like Sprint and OnStar. She also runs the Renegade Writer blog, where you can find all kinds of goodies for freelance writers, both free and not-so-free. Join her mailing list to get two free e-books for writers and Linda’s inspiring and helpful Monday Motivations for Writers emails.