Using polls to understand your members

by Martin Reed on 25 July 2007 in Articles

One way of understanding your members, particularly if you run a forum, is through the use of polls. This article will discuss the pros and cons of forum polls, and determine whether they are a good way of obtaining the opinions and thoughts of your members.

What are forum polls?

Forum polls for member feedbackAll the popular pieces of forum software such as vBulletin and phpBB allow you to create a poll in a thread.

These polls allow you to ask a specific question and allow your members to choose their response from a set of pre-determined options offered by the person who started the poll.

Polls need not be restricted to forum administrators – depending on your chosen settings, you can even have your own members set them up. This can result in you obtaining information on your members’ thoughts and opinions in areas you may never have previously considered.

The advantages of forum polls

Advantages of forum pollsIt is ridiculously simple to set up a forum poll. Just choose a question you want to ask your members, provide a number of options for them to choose from and you are off and running.

Results can be displayed in real-time; whenever you want to check the responses you can view the results. There is no need to wait for individual responses, or for a specific date in the future to come around before you can view all the results.

You can check on the progress of your poll at any time, and begin to gauge opinions before your specified time limit is reached.

Forum members understand polls – they will more than likely have seen or used them before. This means they are far more likely to participate as they know how forum polls work.

Another benefit of forum polls is that they are quick to set up, and quick for your members to complete – most people are put off by long winded surveys and questionnaires. When it comes to a poll, there is just a single question – even the answers are provided; your members just have to choose one!

Depending on how you have configured your forum, people may be allowed to vote even if they aren’t registered members of your community. This means you have the potential to obtain opinions from all visitors to your website – from the first time visitor to the loyal member.

All this sounds great, right? Simple, quick and easy. There are a few disadvantages to using forum polls to understand your members, though.

The disadvantages of forum polls

Disadvantages of forum pollsUnfortunately, the very things that make forum polls so attractive are the very reasons why they are often not the best way of understanding your community members.

The fact that you are setting a question and the choice of responses can result in a poll being biased. You need to ensure that the question you set is completely neutral and infers no opinion or suggestions. Similarly, you must ensure that you offer a range of possible answers without biasing the responses.

For example, if you decide you want to run a poll asking what colour background your members would prefer, a bad poll would read as:

Do you think that blue would be the best background colour, or another one (choose from the list)?

Yes, blue
No, red
No, white
No, green

A better poll would read as follows:

What do you feel would be the best background colour for this forum?

Other (Please State)

The second poll is far less biased and doesn’t direct your members to a particular option or result. You are also offering additional feedback through the use of the ‘Other’ option – just ensure you encourage people to actually state what they want their ‘Other’ vote to mean!

As mentioned earlier, forum polls are simple and easy. You need to consider whether a forum poll is too simple for your needs – they are only effective for answering one question at a time and they only provide simple responses.

Sure, a member has told you their preferred option out of a list you have supplied them with, but you have no information about the thought process behind that choice or how strongly they feel about the option they have chosen; their choice of response may just have been the option closest to their true opinion.

Lastly, you must ensure you do not come to the conclusion that results from a poll are indicative of your entire community’s opinion. Remember that not everyone in your online community will respond to your poll – quite often only those that feel particularly strongly about the subject will take the time to respond; this can result in heavily biased results.

Similarly, if your website is not receiving a large amount of traffic or has few members you may want to consider the value of placing a poll on your site – what is the point in setting up a poll if it is only going to attract two or three responses? The data will be worthless and your community will look empty to new visitors, just as empty forum categories leave a bad first impression.

Conclusion and opinions

I believe that forum polls can be a great way of capturing a snapshot of basic opinion from your members. I would never advise relying on them for more serious opinion gathering or decision making – particularly if your site doesn’t receive a large amount of traffic.

Forum polls can be a good additional way of getting to know your members. Heck, they can even be fun – just make sure they are not your only method of obtaining information and feedback and be aware of their limitations.

Do you often use forum polls to understand your members? Do you use them to involve your members in decision making? What do you feel are the pros and cons of forum polls? Whatever your opinions, please share them by leaving a comment below.

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Sutocu July 25, 2007 at 4:02 pm

I definitely agree. Good thing Blogger Polls recently came out of draft.

Too bad many forum polls are so simple. It’s usually not possible to let users add choices. At least that’s my experience with eblah and yabb forums.

aaron July 25, 2007 at 9:59 pm

I would also add that a disadvantage is that they can easily be manipulated. Users with multiple accounts by use of proxies, different work/home accounts, etc. can sway a poll their way. My members also complain that members never really read the poll description and just vote. We usually require public display of who voted for which option, but my users have all but lost faith in them. Public discussion through agreeing/disagreeing is almost the only thing used by my community now.

Russ July 26, 2007 at 1:47 am

I think that the majority of forum polls I have seen are biased in some way. Most of the time they option you actually think is not available, or the options given are so similar that only one result can ever be found.

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 26, 2007 at 2:57 pm

Sutocu – You’re right; polls are often over-simplified to the point where the ‘data’ they collect is pretty much meaningless.

Aaron – You raise a good point. It is pretty easy to manipulate polls; also, because people become lazy when they are online they will often skip the full question and go straight to the responses.

Russ – Exactly; so many forum polls are biased or not thought through before they are set up. I think the fact that they are so easy to do means that people rush and get them going without really thinking through their aims and whether a poll is suitable for meeting them.

Smiley July 26, 2007 at 5:41 pm

I agree. I don’t use forum polls to gather opinions. I do have a permanent thread sticky’d up in the feedback forum where members can give their opinions on the site design, features, what they’d like added in the future etc etc, and I have a weekly poll on the main site its self that is sometimes for fun, sometimes to gain feedback from ALL site visitors.

I think forum polls should be left as a bit of fun for members.

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 26, 2007 at 10:10 pm

Smiley – Forum polls can be great fun for your members, and for you! Just be careful not to take them too seriously! Having a separate area for feedback where users can be more comprehensive with their ideas is far more appropriate.

Mani Karthik July 30, 2007 at 6:45 am

Good article martin.

Though it touched a very basic topic – you made it sound fresh. Now, that’s what i call blogging!


Martin Reed - Blog Author July 30, 2007 at 3:35 pm

Mani – Thanks for your kind comment, I am glad you enjoyed the article.

Alvina March 17, 2008 at 9:12 pm

I have used polls to get my members involved in some decision making. Some appreciate this because they feel they have a say. However, the decisions are not too serious. I used these polls for decisions such as which skins we should use or which banners are the best, whether we should use the reputation system and so on. I wouldn’t rely on polls for members when it comes to deciding to ban someone or adding a new rule. I reserve these kind of polls for the staff on my forum.

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 19, 2008 at 7:40 pm

Alvina – I think you use polls perfectly. There are great for involving members in minor decisions, but for more complicated matters, personal feedback is far more relevant and valuable.

Beth July 30, 2008 at 8:47 pm

But do people actually vote? I would guess that polls are like comments…. if someone sees that no one else has commented, he won’t comment. But if EVERYBODY is commenting, he may jump in.

Martin Reed - Blog Author August 4, 2008 at 8:56 pm

Beth – Exactly; not everyone will vote in a poll so you need to be aware of this fact before considering the results.

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