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Increasing Survey Response Rates

Bill Johnston Mar 28, 2016 2 Comments

We all fight the continuing battle against low-response rates. While much has changed since my first forays into building and distributing surveys, getting people to respond is still a challenge.

My first professional experience with surveying occurred more than 35 years ago. I wanted to get the opinions of professionals at eleven different colleges in my state. This was back in the days when snail mail was king, so I developed a two-page survey for them to take and mail back to me.

I thought it was going to be easy for two reasons:

  • I asked compelling questions that even the respondents wanted answered.
  • I assumed professional courtesy would compel people to respond.

Confident, I put my survey together with a cover letter promising to share the aggregate results with all respondents. A week later, I followed-up with a reminder postcard.

Low-and-behold, I received 10 out of 11. Being naïve, I actually called the 11th respondent and asked him to complete the survey (I probably even told him that everyone was waiting on him!). I remember he was rather curmudgeonly and wanted nothing to do with my survey, but I persisted and he relented – probably to get me to stop calling him.

I had a 100% response rate!

For my next professional survey, I wanted any one-out-of-three people in each state’s Department of Education to respond to a survey about their economics curriculum.

I had recently received a snail mail survey that had been sent with a crisp one-dollar bill. I responded to it in part because of that dollar, so I reasoned that I would get an even better response rate if I included TWO crisp one-dollar bills. So, I withdrew 300 one-dollar bills from the bank, included two with each survey I sent, and waited for the results to roll in.

All told, I got a total of three surveys back – three out of 150. After my success with my first survey, I was disappointed and confused. Where had I gone wrong?

Unravelling the Mystery of Motivation

Motivating people to respond to a survey is a curious thing. What works for one group of respondents may not work with everyone. For example, an extra dollar was enough to get me to fill out the survey, but my two-dollar offering did nothing to compel my respondents.

Increasing response rates is an art, not a science. After years of experimenting and crunching the numbers here at SurveyGizmo, we have identified five go-to tactics for motivating respondents.

  1. Share the results
  2. Identify other people who care about the results
  3. Send a reminder
  4. Charitable giving
  5. Tangible incentives do work

Share the Results

A very easy way to encourage more responses is to offer your respondent the opportunity to see the survey results.

The simplest ways to do this are to generate a SurveyGizmo summary report post it on your website as a PDF or embed the report directly into your website. If time and data allows, you may want to consider creating a dedicated summary that presents the data and draws conclusions that your audience will find most interesting. This summary could be posted or distributed by e-mail to all respondents.

I have clients who tell me they don’t want to share the results of their surveys because they believe that information gives them a competitive advantage. We find that this is simply not a realistic concern.

Most often, survey results are too specific to your particular audience to be truly useful for your competitors. There is also much more to be gained by sharing the results, which establishes your organization as a data-driven thought leader in your industry and increases engagement for future surveys.

One of my clients sponsors an annual market information survey.

Ten years ago, they were reluctant to share their results and insights.

Today, they receive higher response rates because they have shared their past findings.

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Now, people in their marketplace make sure they respond year after year so that their company is included in the published results. They have a vested interest in the survey because they want to see how their answers stack up within their industry.

Recruit Allies

You are not the only person who wants to know the answers to your survey, particularly if you’re sharing the results.

Your professional colleagues, the school board, the president of the local chapter of your professional organization, or even a content editor might care about your results. Since they will have a vested interest in the outcome, engaging these allies from the get-go is a surefire way to increase your reach.

While you’ll be able to reach out directly to potential respondents in your network, by recruiting allies, you will have access to their audience.

In marketing parlance, these people are your industry influencers. You’ll find them on social media interest groups, writing blogs, hosting webinars, and attending conferences.

These influential allies care about your survey results, too. Invite them to share a link to your survey on social media, in content, through newsletters, and even in face-to-face meetings.

You don’t have to be alone in generating survey responses. By recruiting allies, you will connect your survey with a wider audience that you wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise.

Send a Reminder

No one sends postcard reminders anymore. Fortunately, reminders work just as well if sent via email.

SurveyGizmo’s integrated email system can send automated reminder notes to all those who have either not responded or have not yet completed your survey.

You will probably receive a third to one half as many responses to the first reminder as you did to the initial invitation.

As a rule, subsequent reminders generate fewer and fewer responses, so consider your goals before sending a second or third follow-up note.

If you’re doing a lead-generation survey where every response can increase revenue, subsequent reminders may be a good idea.

If you’re doing research where you need a particular sample size to represent central tendencies, reminders after the first are unlikely to substantially alter your results.

A first reminder is almost always worth the effort, but whether or not subsequent emails will be worth your time depends on your goals.


Charitable Giving

Offering a charitable donation as a survey incentive can be effective if your target audience includes affluent business executives or other professionals; they can also be effective if you’re trying to gather responses from a group that you know has a shared mission or cause.

For example, I once pilot-tested a marketing survey for a transportation components company. In order to make sure we got enough responses to the pilot test, we offered to donate $10 to a local nonprofit bicycle shop that trained neighborhood kids in bicycle mechanics for every response.

The test group loved the incentive, and their responses helped us to make survey changes that improved results when the survey went live.

Tangible Survey Incentives

I have seen tangible incentives positively affect survey response rates, and I have seen them crash and burn.

To succeed, you must know your audience well and be able to offer an incentive that truly rewards them for their time. Motivating respondents is an art, and tangible incentives are an important tool to have on your side.

There are three approaches we recommend:

  • Offer a “thank-you” gift. Include a discount code, a USB drive, or desk knick-knack to everyone who responds.
  • Offer “points” for each response. Many online panels do this. A respondent gets 250 points for each survey they respond to. As they respond to more and more surveys, they accumulate more and more points. Points can be redeemed for other gifts.
  • Offer a lottery. Take the total cash you have budgeted for “thank-you” gifts and offer it as a cash prize to one randomly selected winner. Gift cards to your business or to Amazon are both popular ways to distribute a cash prize.

Overview of How to Increase Survey Response Rates

In review, there are several things you can do to increase your response rates. Mix and match these tactics to see what works best with your audience, and test often to see if small tweaks can be made to further improve your results. Components of your strategy might include:

  • Share the survey results
  • Recruit allies who are also invested in your survey content
  • Send reminder notices
  • Offer charitable gifts
  • Offer tangible incentives

To dive deeper into best practices for motivating your respondents, read this next: Increasing Response Rates Part II: Using Incentives.

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