Increase Survey Response Rates with These 14 Tips

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Colour Full HandConsumers are flooded with survey requests from each purchase, each online transaction, and each customer service experience. Meanwhile, news about data breaches has raised concerns about data security and privacy. Combined, these two forces result in declining response rates to online surveys. The same forces, in addition to the decline of the landline phone and regulations against auto-dialing cell phones, are making it just as difficult to get completes to phone surveys.

What’s the big deal about declining response rates? You can still reach your quota by contacting more people – you just have to adjust your starting sample for the lower response rate. Right?

Not quite.

Lower response rates can seriously impact data quality. Higher response rates give marketing researchers better reliability relative to the population you are surveying as a whole. If your effective response rate is between 2% and 6% (as is often the case with consumer surveys) how do you know what the other 94% to 98% are thinking, buying, doing, or deciding? Is it possible that the people who elected to complete your survey might be different from those who did not choose to complete it? Using an online panel is not a solution, either. While the online panel vendors routinely balance their samples to reflect the demographics of the population you want to survey, you still have the problem of people who join online panels being different in important ways from people who do not join panels.

Higher response rates mean a greater likelihood that the people who complete your survey are representative of and similar to the people who did not take your survey and that your data reflects market and behavioral reality.

Here are 14 tips to increase your response rate:

  1. Pre-test the survey. No marketing research can pre-test a questionnaire they designed. Get a colleague to go over it and help you identify anything that is confusing, redundant, or hard to answer. Better yet, get some potential respondents and have them take the survey. Follow-up by asking them what they found confusing or difficult to answer.
  2. Soft-launch the survey. Once you fully launch your survey, there is not much you can do if you find an error afterward. So soft-launch your survey with a minimal amount of sample and check the response data to make sure it is correct before you full-launch.
  3. Optimize your subject line. This can make or break your response rate. Most respondents will decide to open your survey or to delete it based on your subject line. So, make it count: catch the attention of the reader and convince them to respond. (If you have time, you could test different subject lines in your soft launch.)
  4. Pre-notification. If you are using your own sample, send out a pre-notification. Ask someone well-known to respondents and highly regarded to tell respondents about the coming survey and kindly ask for their participation. For employee surveys, you can publicize the survey in your in-house communications vehicles, tell managers about it so they can give their staff a heads-up, and even create posters for break rooms.
  5. Make it relevant – WIIFM? The introduction to the survey should explain why respondents will benefit from the results, and why it is in their best interest to participate. Give them an answer to WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?).
  6. Mix modes. Make it easy for respondents to answer the survey by reaching them where they want to be reached. Begin with a phone call and then send an online survey. Use an online survey and phone survey the non-respondents. It may take more time and resources, but it will result in a better response rate.
  7. Incentives are still the best option for increasing response rates. There is no hard rule-of-thumb about the right kind or amount of incentive, but usually, the more, the better! Moreover, giving everyone a smaller incentive works better than putting every respondent into a raffle or sweepstakes to win a bigger prize.
  8. First KISS! Keep It Short and Simple. Use “every day,” conversational language. Fewer words are better. If you must use jargon or acronyms, include a pop-up definition that respondents access by mousing over the words. This won’t help to get more respondents to start the survey, but it will certainly ensure that fewer drop off once they start.
  9. Optimize Timing of Invitation and Reminders. For B2B surveys, open rates for surveys and reminders are highest on Monday and Tuesday mornings. For consumer surveys, Friday afternoon might be better, so they are completed over the weekend. Think about holidays and other events to avoid before deciding when to send your invitation or reminders.
  10. Make it engaging. Most people would not use the word “fun” together with “marketing research survey” in a sentence. Nonetheless, we need to increase respondent engagement. And while it might not be fun, at least keep their attention by switching up scales, using visuals, asking creative questions, and improving the design and format of the surveys. Above all, limit the use of the deadly boring grid question as much as possible.
  11. Optimize platforms. Respondents will take an online survey on their computer, their phone, and their laptop, so choose a survey software that optimizes the survey format “on the fly” for the platform in use. Don’t make it more difficult for the respondent than it has to be!
  12. Second KISS! Keep it short, stupid! Nothing is more effective at preventing survey response than the length of time it takes to answer the survey. Ten minutes maximum for B2B, fifteen minutes maximum for B2C – and shorter is always better!
  13. Honor the unsubscribe. Offer respondents who have opened the invitation a chance to unsubscribe – and then take them off the list. Receiving an unwanted reminder to complete the survey is not going to change their mind.
  14. Don’t over-survey. Especially for customer surveys, be careful not to send too many surveys to the same individuals, over too short a time. Coordinate your surveying efforts across the enterprise so that you don’t annoy customers with too many requests for their time.

None of these tips alone is sufficient to solve your low response rate challenge. However, together and in combination, they can give you a fighting chance at improved data quality and reliability.

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Kyle Burnam

Kyle Burnam is the CEO of Infosurv and the leader of its sister company, Intengo, where he oversees all client research and R&D projects. Having been in the industry since 2005, Kyle brings a wealth of experience to the table and an innovative eye to every project.