Best Practice: How to Say Your Survey is Long

bad decision
Imagine this scenario: you’re taking your car in for an oil change. You drop off your car, and the people behind the counter ask if you need a ride back to your home or place of business. You answer you aren’t sure – how long will this take? The response comes back: we don’t really know… Your car is already in the bay, so you figure it won’t take long. After all, it seems like it should be a pretty straightforward oil change, right?

Four hours later, you’re still waiting, with no word on why this is taking so long and no indication when your car will be ready. How would you feel?

It’s All About the Timing…Isn’t It?

For some reason, it seems that some survey experiences fall under this scenario. Someone receives an invitation to take a survey. It doesn’t seem like it should take too long (maybe a maximum of 10 minutes), so they decide to provide feedback. Suddenly, they’re faced with a much longer survey than they expected (going on 20 minutes), with no indication of how far they are in the survey. Frustrated and more than a little annoyed at having already spent 10 minutes on this survey with no idea if the end is near, they drop out of the survey.

I’ve taken surveys like this, and I’m always surprised at the lack of communication about how long the survey would take in the first place. I’ve also had the unfortunate experience of starting a survey that I was told was likely to take a long time (up to 45 minutes), but the survey ended up being far longer than the expected time listed (and this was when I had much time to spare!). These occasions have left me wondering, “Was I just slow? Did I trigger every possible logic option and take the entire realm of possible questions? Did they actually time the survey?”

If you have a long survey, be realistic about the time that survey is likely to take, and tell your respondents upfront about the possible length of the survey. “But,” you retort, “it might take forever to get responses!”

Yes, it will likely take longer to reach the response quota, but I propose that they are likely to be higher quality responses in the long run because people who really wanted to provide the feedback will take the time to respond.

Communication is the Key

If your survey is long, before releasing the survey, first ask if it really needs to be that long. Are you asking about too many subjects in one survey? Are your questions redundant? Are the questions all necessary for you to meet your research objective?

If it turns out you just have a long survey (for example, an in-depth study about a product you’re planning to launch), communicate the reason why that survey is long to your audience. I’ve willingly taken surveys that were long because the survey administrator was clear about the objective, the length of the survey, and why it was a long survey. Here’s an example of a possible invitation text for such a survey.

Dear Respondent,

We are conducting an in-depth study about a potential product we plan to launch in the next few months. To help make sure that we are meeting customer expectations, we want to take some time to let you review the product and five proposed advertisements to help us determine the potential messaging for this product. This survey is likely to take about 30 minutes of your time. Thank you in advance for taking the time to help us with our product messaging!

You’ve explained the length, the content of the survey, and the purpose of the survey. By being upfront with all of this information, you’ve given the potential respondents plenty of information to let them decide what they are getting into when they start the survey.

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