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Free Survey Makers - Where You May Be Going Wrong

When I think about the free tools out there I lean away from using them as survey tools and using them for what they were probably designed for in the first place – Polls.

There are so many available tools to capture feedback from your people, some of which are free…

Tools like Survey Monkey, Google Forms, and Microsoft Forms are free solutions or have a free version of their software.

Free sounds great, right?

But there has to be a catch.



When something online is free, you are not the customer; you are the product

 (Jonathan Zittrain)


What does this quote mean when we think about survey tools? (or any online tools) well, typically, two things are going on:

  1. Your data is valuable, and therefore if you freely provide this, they will give you a free solution
  2. They offer a wider solution that costs money, and they want you to: 
    1. Trade up from the freemium to the paid version.
    2. Keep using the paid service they offer, and the free bits (like surveys) make it a bit stickier

Think about this regarding Social Media - the biggest free service out there.

We all accept that by using Facebook or Twitter, they are capturing a lot of data about us, a lot of which they use to drive marketing campaigns - this is about a trade-off, how much do you get out of their platform vs how comfortable you are that your data is being used in this way

Twitter and Instagram have recently started a subscription service where you can control what happens with your account and data far more than the free version.

So, free stuff is often about a trade-off (and not simply an organisation being altruistic), and if you do not like the trade-off, well, then there may be a paid version for you…

What is the trade-off when using free survey tools that you should be aware of?

There are a few different areas that should be considered when thinking about a Free survey solution or a Paid for Survey Platform; these are the trade-offs:


Trade-off Area

Free Surveys

Dedicated Survey Provider

Anonymity of respondents

Surveys like Google Forms and MS Forms capture respondents’ details as the default setting - so anonymity is not assured if you do not turn this off.


If you are asking demographic data questions (such as gender) again, identifying the individual becomes not just easy but very likely.

A good provider will separate employee data and survey response data to ensure that anonymity can be assured, this plus restricting charts and data to a minimum number of respondents (say, five.)


Demographic questions will be stored for survey responses and not against the person’s record.


You cannot download a detailed report with survey responses and identifiable data – Online dashboards ensure you have the information you need without the risk of identifying who said what.

Your Organisation GDPR or Data Processing rules

Where is the data stored in the UK, the EU?


Do you know?


Products like Survey Monkey have clauses stating they may transfer your data outside the EU/UK.


Remember, when you use a free tool, you may not be going through your procurement process, your legal team’s due diligence and ensuring that the way that data is held and destroyed is in line with these.


When someone sets up a free survey and leaves the organisation, do you retain control of the data? (the answer is probably not) and can you guarantee it is destroyed or erased in line with your policies?


Do your people know you have put their personal information into a free online tool? (They should do, as they have rights around how their data is stored)

When you procure an Employee Feedback platform, you will probably go through some due diligence to ensure they can fulfil the legal requirements of GDPR and your data processing policies.


You will enter into a contract with clauses and penalties to give clarity to both parties on who is responsible for what and what happens if something goes wrong.


The platform you procure will mean you are fulfilling your obligations and the rights of the individual whose data you are processing.


Your Feedback partner will have, as a minimum, ISO27001 certification so you know that they are audited each year and meet the requirements to handle people’s data.


They will have vulnerability testing and penetration testing as a standard.

Data in the wild

Spreadsheet anarchy is one of my favourite descriptions of what happens when you do not have the right tools.


Google Forms, MS Forms and Free Survey Tools all output to spreadsheets.


(We will talk about analysis in a mo…)

But you now have spreadsheets of potentially personal and identifiable data floating around in your organisation - why?


Because, mostly, the online reporting tools are not good enough to use.

A decent Survey Platform will have everything built in;


  • People Data
  • Survey Distribution
  • Analytics
  • Downloadable Reports
  • Exports to Excel
  • Trend Analysis
  • Benchmarking
  • User Set-Up and Restrictions


This means you are not downloading sensitive data to work on, and instead use a tool designed to keep data safe and secure, while giving you the insights you need to take action.

How you structure your organisation, people demographics and reporting groups

If you want to drill down into your report and see how different groups feel and break down your reporting to be meaningful, then you will need to know your people's org structure and demographics.


With free tools, this means you will be asking them this as a question, e.g. “What gender do you identify as”


And circling back to point one, by asking this, plus having a spreadsheet of responses, you can now identify individuals.

Either through HR Systems Integrations or through uploads of people data, a survey platform should;


  1. Cope with how you segment your data
  2. Automatically capture demographic data not in the upload and show these in online dashboards
  3. Segment your surveys (send to only a group of people)
  4. Segment your dashboards
  5. Lock down access so managers only see the charts and reports you want.

All of this plays back into the trust element of surveys; with free tools, the survey creator can identify people – and you have to be ok with this.

Who is doing the heavy lifting

Well, you…


And you may be awesome at this, but it is still your time and effort going into this;


  • Writing the questions
  • Creating communication material
  • Setting up the Survey
  • Sending emails
  • Sending chaser emails
  • Analysing the results
  • Creating dashboards or reports
  • Presenting the results back
  • Fielding any questions
  • Supporting managers by creating presentations for them
  • And more!

Your survey platform partner has a team of people to support you.


You are not just buying technology but also:


  • Client Success
  • Help Desk Support
  • Organisational Psychology
  • Analytics
  • Marketing and Communications
  • and more!


As the heavy lifting is not sitting on your shoulders, you can focus on the outcomes of the survey, the internal work and on taking action!

HRIS Integrations

Pretty much no integrations.


So, limited or no, automation and you end up with spreadsheets all over the place and your people data is probably self-reported (e.g. Gender, Location, Team)

You should expect some integration if you have a long-term contract with a survey provider with your current HR systems


The limitation is most likely with your HR system and not the survey partner - Modern Survey Platforms have an API that allows them to quickly connect to your HR Systems and your data is kept clean and up to date.


This also allows survey automation, like exit interviews, new joiners surveys and stay interviews based on HR Systems trigger events.


Well, it is free to use - the cost is your time and the quality of the delivery/outputs/outcomes.

Paid for - But saves you time, delivers the quality of service and outputs without you having to do the work.

In Summary

When I think about the free tools out there I lean away from using them as survey tools and using them for what they were probably designed for in the first place – Polls.

Now, if you want to ask a group of people if they want crinkle-cut or steak-cut chips in the canteen - run a poll; Google Forms is great for this.

If you want to get insights into Employee engagement in your organisation, what is driving this, and trends over time, I suggest you pay for this solution.

And if your CEO and CFO are saying things like, “Why would we pay when there are free tools out there” then the issue is not budget; it is in understanding the value of the paid-for solution and the limitations and trade-offs with the free one.

Caveat - I run a company that provides this at a cost, so when you are reading this, be aware of this, while I have tried to remove any bias from this blog, some will have no doubt leaked through – hopefully, this will help you think about how you want to approach employee feedback.


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