Survey vs questionnaire: what’s the difference and which should you use?

Are surveys and questionnaires the same? Not quite.

TL;DR—A questionnaire is a set of written questions, while a survey is the full process of asking those questions, collecting responses and analyzing the results. In short: a ‘questionnaire’ is a research instrument, while a ‘survey’ is a more complete package of research.

But let’s dig a little deeper. When do you use which and how do you use them the right way?

Surveys vs questionnaires: what’s the difference?

Questionnaire is not just a fancy word for survey. And yet, many people use the words survey and questionnaire interchangeably.

But they are in fact two different, although overlapping, elements of market research. Let’s look at what each of them is and how they are similar, and how they are different.

Person analyzing survey responses

Surveys and questionnaires both collect information

What came first, the survey or the questionnaire?

Let’s say both.

Both are used to collect information from a group of people. Businesses use them to make informed decisions on marketing, product, pricing and so much more.

A company might conduct a survey to gather customer feedback on a new product. They might conduct a survey that includes a questionnaire, with questions about usage, satisfaction, and NPS scores.

Surveys and questionnaires both can be administered in several ways. We’re here to help you with online surveys, but you can also survey people over the phone for instance.

Questionnaires always have to be written questions, so you could send them via post, email—any for that allows writing.

Surveys are a method of research

If we look at the difference between the both of them, surveys are more of a complete research method. They include not only the set of questions you’re asking, but also the collection and analysis of the responses.

It might help to remember the other ways ‘survey’ can be used. For example, you might have a survey done on your property to make sure it’s structurally sound. A survey is a term for a more comprehensive type of analysis.

In fact, here’s the literal dictionary definition of ‘survey’:

noun: survey; plural noun: surveys


  1. 1.a general view, examination, or description of someone or something.”the author provides a survey of the relevant literature”
Definition from Oxford Languages

Questionnaires are research instruments

If we zoom in on surveys, we might find that within that survey, questionnaires are used as a way to carry out this research. As we said, questionnaires are any written set of questions. It’s therefore a data collection tool, but not a full research method.

Here’s the dictionary definition of ‘questionnaire’:




noun: questionnaire; plural noun: questionnaires

  1. a set of printed or written questions with a choice of answers, devised for the purposes of a survey or statistical study.
Definition from Oxford Languages

What is a market research survey?

A market research survey is used by businesses to inform decisions. Using market research surveys gives them the confidence that what they’re doing is in line with what consumers want.

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It also helps them analyze and minimize risks by making smart decisions. And market research surveys can help businesses spot new opportunities.

You can check out this example of survey questions for a new food product to see what it’s all about.

So market research surveys are used to understand different parts of the market. They are generally directed at consumers. You could use a market research survey to get to know an audience better, to learn what they think of your competitors or to gauge how they feel about a certain idea of yours.

The benefit of using surveys for market research is that they’re easy to scale, meaning you can get a lot of respondents—especially when using an online survey.

What is a market research questionnaire?

This is a list of written questions sent to your target audience to gather information for your market research.

Written questions are easy to distribute, especially online. You can give respondents answer options, making it easier to analyze data. And they are easy to set up—particularly when you have an intuitive platform like Attest!

Person taking part in an online survey

But sometimes questionnaires are not the way to go, simply because there are limitations to written questions. Sure, you might be able to formulate every question you have and put it all in writing, but your respondents need to do the same for their answers—and not everyone wants to write long responses.

So, when you want to collect a lot of in-depth, qualitative data to gather consumers’ opinions, ask yourself whether written questions and answers are the way to go.

Another scenario in which a market research questionnaire might not get you the best results, is when your questions aren’t clearly defined yet. In some cases you might benefit more from having an open and flowing conversation with consumers. A phone survey or a focus group might be better in that case.

When should you use a market research survey?

You should use a market research survey when you want to base your business decisions on data, not on guesswork.

You use a market research survey to factor the opinions and wants of your target audience into your business decisions. It doesn’t always have to be externally though. You can also run a brand perception survey, to find out how consumers (or employees) see your brand.

And you can do that for all kinds of things, from concept testing to market analysis. Check out our survey templates to find inspiration for your next survey.

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Tips for running a successful market research survey

Ah, the art of conducting surveys! Here are our top three rules to make sure your survey will be a success.

Keep your research goal in mind

It doesn’t matter how many respondents you have, if you’re not asking questions that relate specifically to your research purposes, you might as well be talking to a wall.

On top of that, make sure you’re surveying the right people. Often a nationally representative sample won’t give you a specific enough audience to make your insights really hit the mark, so you might need to figure out which audience segment you want to target.

Choose the right tool

This is important for both the customer experience, aka your respondents answering the questions, and your team. Choose a tool that is easy to work with, lets you analyze the survey results in a user-friendly dashboard, and provides you support along the way to make sure you’re crafting the ideal survey for your needs.

Make it actionable

The goal should never just be data collection. The goal is to inform your business decisions. Make sure you ask questions that give you actionable survey data, not just fluff questions. Be decisive on which questions stay and go.

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When should you use a market research questionnaire?

Well, if you’ve decided that the best way for your business to gather information from your target audience is through written responses—sometimes defined as more qualitative research. That could be for a variety of reasons. It might be the most cost-effective survey method, or because you really want to understand why people think and act the way they do.

It might also be that your research question involves collecting quantitative data and statistical data, which is easily collected through questionnaires.

But you could also be conducting qualitative research and want to send open-ended questions to a large group of people.

There are plenty of research methods out there, and depending on your research needs, it could be the best choice to conduct questionnaires—but it depends entirely on your goals and resources!

Tips for writing a great questionnaire

  • One question at a time: resist the urge to cram two different questions into one. You want to keep responses separated and avoid people only answering part of the question. If a question has two parts (an ‘and’ or comma in the phrase usually is a dead giveaway), split them up! That’ll make it all the much easier for you to draw conclusions.
  • Use language your audience understands: in your research project, you might be using jargon that is specific to your industry. But don’t assume that your survey respondents know these words too. Keep it simple and use language you know they are familiar with. This will help you collect responses that are complete and make sense.
  • Avoid leading questions: this applies to both closed-ended questions and open ones! Make sure your questions are completely neutral and your target audiences don’t get pushed into the direction that gives you the answers that are nice to hear—you want the honest truth from consumers.
  • Keep it as short as possible: if you want to collect detailed data, really think about what questions you need to ask, and what the best way is to ask them. This is critical for qualitative questionnaires. People simply don’t want to be writing whole essays, and it also doesn’t make for easy-to-analyze research data.
  • Use different question formats: keep the statistical analysis of your questionnaire in mind when you gather data, whether it’s quantitative research or qualitative surveys you’re sending out. Make it easier for your team and for respondents by using various question formats. An open-ended question collecting qualitative data about how much someone likes a product feature is hard to answer and to analyze, so scaled answers in questionnaires could be the best option here. You could also send out pictorial questionnaires—these are great for concept testing.

Why is the difference between surveys and questionnaires important?

It’s not (just) because we are research geeks and want you to use the right words.

You need to go into research projects knowing what your data collection goals are, and what tools can help you reach them. That’s why it’s important to understand the main difference between a survey vs questionnaire.

While both collect data, you want to communicate with your team why and which approach you are choosing and where you are in the process, and for that it helps to use the right terminology.

Discover the bigger picture when you send your first survey

The survey vs questionnaire is not a battle, but a collaboration. Now you know the difference between a survey and a questionnaire, it’s time to start making your own. We’ve got templates ready for you and a list of 100 market research survey questions to ask.

100 essential market research questions

Unsure where you might start with your market research survey? Our team of experts has compiled this list of 100 essential survey questions

See the questions

Not sure which ones fit your research best? With Attest, you get a dedicated research team that’ll help you dig deeper and helps you conduct research like a professional.

Nick White

Customer Research Lead 

Nick joined Attest in 2021, with more than 10 years' experience in market research and consumer insights on both agency and brand sides. As part of the Customer Research Team team, Nick takes a hands-on role supporting customers uncover insights and opportunities for growth.

See all articles by Nick