Anonymous survey 101: 7 Tips to create anonymous surveys online

When you want to recruit potential survey participants, it’s critical to build a survey that makes them feel comfortable and confident while giving open, honest feedback. This strategy should include an anonymous survey. 

When you let people know that you are conducting an anonymous survey online, they know their identity will remain confidential. They will be more comfortable to respond from the comfort of their home. It is especially relevant when you need to collect feedback from employees or customers regarding sensitive information, such as misconduct, safety procedures, and personnel changes. That said, offering anonymity is generally a solid best practice for any survey plan.

In this article, we’ll discuss what an anonymous survey is, briefly explain why it’s useful, why you might not want to use the anonymity feature, describe anonymous survey examples, and provide advice to keep your questionnaire anonymous. Follow our tips and gather unbiased results and actionable feedback. 

What is an anonymous survey?

An anonymous survey is a series of questions given to participants so that you and other parties cannot identify who submits which responses. Identifying information includes names, birthdates, location, and other data points that can easily link you to individual survey respondents.

When conducting an anonymous online survey, you need to be aware of additional identifying factors, such as IP address or contact information for follow-up studies. Make sure those items are not traceable to ensure your results are unbiased, and your participants remain genuinely anonymous.

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Why should a survey be anonymous?

You should create an anonymous survey whenever you have the option. It will give you better results in the following ways:

  • You and your strategy team can analyze responses without bias that you would otherwise have toward known participants.
  • Respondents will likely feel more comfortable sharing their honest opinions.
  • Employees or repeat customers can participate without fear of retaliation from management or executive leadership in your organization.

There may be some instances when an anonymous survey is not ultimately helpful. These include the following scenarios: 

  • When you have a follow-up survey to explore an issue more thoroughly or collect feedback about changes you’ve made since conducting the first survey.
  • When you are doing an investigation that might involve legal action and need to follow up with individuals.

If following up with specific participants regarding their feedback is essential to your research, consider designating one party to keep respondents’ identities confidential and unknown to all others involved in conducting the survey. An HR lead or an outside firm could be the right choice for this role. Most likely, an anonymous survey is the best option for your situation. The next section covers a few anonymous survey examples to help you build your plan. 

Anonymous survey examples

To show you how universally beneficial conducting an anonymous survey is, we describe three very different examples below. You can apply many of the same principals to your strategy, regardless of industry or research discipline.

Anonymous survey example 1: Customer satisfaction

In this example, an independent drugstore wants to serve its community better. They decide a survey will help them accomplish three things: 

1) Gauge overall customer satisfaction 

2) Improve customer experience

3) Curate their inventory 

Consider the inventory items a store like this might carry. These include highly personal details, such as medications, period products, and household cleaners. Local shoppers are thrilled to participate and help the shopkeepers optimize their store, but they are understandably concerned about confidentiality. 

To keep the results anonymous while making it possible to follow up with locals, the store creates an anonymous online survey that they share via their newsletter. They turn off all conversion trackers that would indicate which newsletter subscribers opened or completed the questionnaire. Once this initial anonymous survey is complete, they build and follow an action plan. To gather responses to their intended improvements, the store sends a follow-up survey to the same mailing list.

Anonymous survey example 2: Employee workplace culture

In the next case, approximately 100 employees start to see anonymous reports of bullying between colleagues on public online forums. No one is mentioned by name, so the HR department does not know who to contact with follow-up questions. Their strategy to stop workplace bullying starts with creating an anonymous survey to get a holistic view of how employees perceive the current company culture. They ask employees questions that measure how safe they feel, how aware they are of proper reporting procedures, and whether they or someone they know has experienced bullying at this company. Finally, they ask respondents to name anyone they know has been exhibiting bullying behavior.

Because these questions could lead to retaliation from the person or people who are bullying others, this survey must remain anonymous. It allows employees to hold peers and higher-ranking individuals accountable without risking their jobs or their security. 

Once the first company culture survey results are collected and reviewed, HR can create an action plan that involves a more focused but certainly cautious investigation based on the trends in their feedback. They decide not to ask respondents to identify themselves to uphold their employees’ safety and trust as much as possible. However, HR did have to confront the alleged bully with specific instances.

Anonymous survey example 3: Sociology course project

In our final example, a college student conducts a small study about spending habits and socio-economic backgrounds, using their classmates as survey participants. This survey inherently includes identifying information, such as spending habits and favorite brands, in addition to generally confidential information, including parents’ income levels, respondents’ income levels, and cultural perspectives about finances.

The student conducting this study does not want what she knows about her peers to influence the results. With this in mind, she creates an anonymous survey and carefully selects survey question types to allow for some anonymity. She does this by including multiple-choice and constant sum questions and others with predetermined answer ranges. The student shares this survey via email with classmates and other students at her university. She also shares it with their contacts.

By opening up the survey to students outside her university and people in each student’s social circles, the survey creator makes it harder to identify respondents based on their answers. She wants to ensure that her feedback sources are kept anonymous, so the student opts for a Respondent Anonymity Assurance-enabled survey (RAA). It allows her to follow up with participants without revealing their identity. 

We’ll talk about RAA in the next section.

7 Tips for creating anonymous surveys

Now that you’ve seen some examples of anonymous surveys in action, it’s time to create an anonymous survey yourself. Follow these tips to keep your questionnaire anonymous and engaging:

  1.  Communicate your intentions

Let participants know what your anonymous survey entails before they get started. Communicate what information you will and won’t collect, who will be assessing the feedback, and how you intend to follow up (if at all). Let them know any extra steps you are taking to ensure their answers are anonymous and outline what you plan to do with their responses after the survey. For example, will you be quoting them anonymously in a report? That’s something they need to know if someone they know might read that report and identify them. Preliminary communication will instill confidence and set expectations for a more successful survey experience for all parties involved.

  1.  Use the right platform

Not all survey platforms offer Respondent Anonymity Assurance (RAA), one of the only ways to be sure that your survey is truly anonymous. QuestionPro is the only online survey provider that can enable RAA for all questions. It is extremely important for your research quality because once activated, the protections RAA-enabled surveys provide cannot be rescinded. That means participants, contacts, and even the survey creator cannot request access to identifying information after the fact. It protects anonymous survey respondents and the integrity of your data.

  1.  Disable custom variables or data collection

Many surveys come with a feature that allows you to store participants’ personal data. We’re not talking about highly confidential data like credit card numbers or their mother’s middle name. It is the information that most people share when they subscribe to an online newsletter or register for a promotional discount: name, email address, phone number, or mailing address. When creating a survey, we often don’t even think about how these custom variables are collected and saved for future use. Be aware of them and make sure you use a survey platform like QuestionPro that lets you skip collecting it when needed.

  1.  Write questions carefully

You might think your questions can’t be linked to any individual respondent, but that depends on the possible answers. As we mentioned earlier, watch for questions that reveal specific information about individuals, their family members, or experiences that may be unique to them or someone with their background.

It doesn’t mean you can’t ask demographic questions. Just word them very carefully and consider possible answers as you go. If you need to ask these types of questions, consider using a randomly selected sample of participants or broaden your sample to people outside your community (as the student attempted to do in example 3). 

  1.  Write the survey holistically

While one question might not identify individual respondents on its own, a combination of them could. If you must ask relatively personal questions because of the nature of your anonymous survey, limit these as much as possible. The wrong combination of questions is like a puzzle that researchers (or data thieves) can solve with some sleuthing. Again, you can include some of these questions and still maintain anonymity, but avoid creating a survey that enables you to identify participants when you review all questions.

  1.  Understand your demographic

Selecting participants for an anonymous online survey can go a couple of ways. If you are surveying a particular group of people, you can write your questions more mindfully when you know about recipients as a demographic. It might sound counter-intuitive, but when you know some statistics about this group, you can determine which questions might reveal respondents’ identity.

For example, say you’re conducting an employee engagement survey, and you already know that only 20 percent of the employees are women. Asking your participants to indicate their gender will make it easy to narrow down the origins of other responses, as will questions that tend to gather feedback related to commonly shared gendered experiences. It might seem like a simple, general question, but that depends on who participates in your survey.

  1.  Survey a large sample

Surveying as many people as possible with a broad range of identifying variables can help you keep your questionnaire anonymous. Some research needs to have limitations, such as current customer engagement or employee satisfaction. When possible, think about the largest group of people you can include in your survey and anticipate relevant results. Collect the feedback via an anonymous online survey following the best practices mentioned above, and your survey could reach relevant participants across several regions and demographics.

Create a survey of your own

Now that you know why and how to create an anonymous survey, it’s time to build your own. Leverage the best practices listed above and consider QuestionPro, your go-to resource for research you can trust. We offer RAA-enabled anonymous surveys you can share with a single link and research services that help you process feedback professionally and confidentially.