10-year way to success of SurveyMonkey: interview with Eli Schwartz

SurveyMonkey is the world’s leader in web-based survey solutions.  The company is famous for offering simple and convenient tools to design polls and analyze the responses.  It allows companies to collect customers’ feedback from different sources including email, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and banner ads. Having pre-design templates the service makes it easy for the companies to conduct their own surveys.

We had a pleasant talk with SurveyMonkey’s Online Marketing Manager, Eli Schwartz, who kindly agreed to share his own experience as well as give some insights on company’s marketing strategy and corporate culture.

Tell a few words about SurveyMonkey history. How did the company grow? How did the idea of such a company arise?

SurveyMonkey was founded in 1999 by Ryan Finley. It started as a side project out of his Madison, Wisconsin, apartment when he was asked to send a survey to customers of his then-employer, yet there wasn’t an easy tool for which to design one. Ryan worked nights and weekends to create a simple online survey tool, the first of its kind.

Today, under the leadership of CEO Dave Goldberg, SurveyMonkey is the world’s largest survey company, helping customers collect more than 2 million online survey responses every day. SurveyMonkey revolutionizes the way people give and take feedback, making it accessible, easy and affordable for everyone. The company’s focus has long been helping people make better decisions and we’ve built technology based on more than 10 years of experience in survey methodology and Web development. Customers include 99 percent of the Fortune 500, academic institutions, small businesses, HR departments and neighborhood soccer leagues everywhere.

Every big and successful company, especially related to IT industry, tend to have their unique corporate culture. Is there any specific rules or traditions that SurveyMonkey follow in their corporate life? 

We’re a smart, passionate group of people who work really hard so our customers don’t have to. Our culture is driven by our desire to trust each other and balance their work and life. For example, we offer flexible “you” time, which means unlimited vacation.

One thing unique to us is the example our CEO sets.  He goes home promptly at 5:30PM everyday to pick his kids up from school.  This makes everyone feel comfortable with making family a priority.

Tell a few words about your path to marketing, as far as I could see from your LinkedIn profile marketing was not the first job you’ve taken. How did you come to marketing?

While my first job did not have a marketing title, I feel like I have always been doing some sort of marketing since the day I first set up a lemonade stand as a bored 7-year-old. My first real position after school was at an online lead generation company where my job was to sign up web affiliates to run my company’s offers. This was where I first was introduced to the fascinating world of online marketing as I came into contact with publishers who were extremely successful at SEO and SEM. I was amazed that these publishers were basically able to arbitrage both paid and free traffic into tremendous amounts of money.

During the nearly two years I was at this company, I absorbed everything I could from the publishers I worked with on how they were able to be so successful. Most of the things I learned were admittedly black hat, but by understanding the dark arts of marketing, I was able to learn how to be a better white hat marketer.

My next position was at a startup as a jack of all trades marketer and every time there was a need for someone to do some sort of marketing task, I raised my hand. I was privileged to have a company and managers that allowed me to learn on the job. By doing this I was able to hone my skills in SEO, SEM, Social, and other forms of advertising.

What is the biggest online marketing challenge for SurveyMonkey right now?

There are actually a few big challenges that we are focused on. We have always been focused on the traditional consumer and SMB audience, but we recently launched our Enterprise product. We are putting a lot of effort into trying to reach the user base that we have not been able to capture before. Additionally, we have an online market research tool called SurveyMonkey Audience which rather than pay respondents for their participation as most other online offline products do, we instead make donations to charities.

We are very focused on growing our respondent base, and educating potential customers about the value of our tool. The last challenge is growing our user base internationally. We have been privileged to see great growth in countries where we have strong brand recognition, but we don’t have the same advantage in countries where we do not have brand recognition and online surveys might not be as popular.

SurveyMonkey is a B2B company and a successful one. Could you give a couple of tips to B2B marketers where to look and what strategies to take on to achieve success?

Focus on 3-4 metrics at most. Watch them like a hawk. You have to know what numbers drive your business. Track any more than 3-4 key metrics, and you’ll lose focus. As a startup, one of your early hires should be a crack analytics person.  They will become key to your success.

Most of the time startups focus on hiring developers, testers and those who enhance the core business. Resist this urge. Hiring a great analytics person as soon as you can will help the team build a healthier product.  Metrics are the voice of your organization. Surveys are a good way to gain insights into why your metrics are trending the way they are. Let the insights from the measurement data mold engineering, marketing, and product testing strategies

Does SEO play important part in overall marketing strategy of SurveyMonkey? How much time do you allocate to internal optimization versus off-site optimization (links), what is the proportion 50% to 50% or 40 to 60?

SEO is very important to SurveyMonkey because many people conduct an online search for an answer to a problem they are facing not realizing that a survey is the solution they need. Our job is to make sure that these natural searchers are aware of our product. I spend nearly all of my time on on-page optimization because the viral aspects allow our links to occur on their own.

Since our site is translated into 16 languages, we spend quite a bit of time ensuring that our keywords are properly translated and we are achieving the right metrics across dozens of countries. Global SEO allows me to really go back to the basics of SEO since from my experience on optimizing our sites internationally there is still a lot that can be gained from seemingly minor changes.

Do you remember your biggest SEO achievement, biggest joy, how did it come?

My greatest achievement was recovering from Google Panda that had hit a site I worked on. In my opinion, SEO is all about following best practices and clean marketing, and you don’t always get to see the payoff of your efforts. In this case, we made some very clear decisions and implemented dozens of changes to improve the site, and it was a great feeling to see the difference they had made.

There is a lot of debate right now around such giants as Google and Facebook, saying that they force entrepreneurs to go to their paid ads services making it nearly impossible to get a boost without huge sums of money. Do you support such an opinion? Do you believe in marketing with a tight budget? How it should be done, what should be the focus?

I disagree with those that complain about Google and Facebook doing what they need to do show returns for their shareholders. These two companies do not charge consumers to use their service, and therefore their primary source of revenue is to charge businesses to reach their user base.

I am not thrilled that Google took away keyword data with Not Provided, but in my opinion, a lack of keyword data should not fundamentally change the way SEO should be done. I liked knowing the keywords that people use to find our site, but even without this data we are just as hyper focused on providing good content and a positive experience for our users.

I also do not agree that you need large sums of money to compete with major brands for organic traffic on Google and Facebook. A strong product resonates with users, and will ultimately lead to great traffic on Google and Facebook. Marketing can be done with a tight budget, and the budget should be spent on making sure people are aware of what an awesome product you have. For example, products like Coin probably did not need to spend any money on SEO to rank on the word “coin”, they just needed to create a cool product. Or on Facebook, sites like Upworthy don’t even create their own content; yet they are amazingly viral.

For me one of the biggest challenges in being a marketer is a huge amount of tasks which are very different and the necessity to know a lot about lots of neighboring subjects, lots of info that needs to be processed… I am sure you faced this problem too, do you have any time and resources management secrets that help you to handle it all?

I don’t sleep… but that’s just because I have a newborn son.

Actually, I try to multi-task the learning with other things that I am doing. While I am waiting at a doctor’s office, I am reading my blog feeds. While working on a repetitive task at work, I might have a webinar on in the background or a You Tube video of a presentation running. However, my biggest secret is that I am OK not knowing everything and seeking help for things I don’t know. I am never going to be the best SEO I can be if I also try to know everything about PPC. I recognize that I can only be very good at a couple of things, and just might have to settle for mediocrity at all the rest.

Thank you, Eli, for such an interesting talk! We enjoyed it a lot!

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