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As a tool, the survey is a cost-effective means of uncovering the insights which can be used to inform decision making. However, like all tools, there are issues that have to be resolved for it to do its job properly. Survey response rates are highly variable and subject to the impact of numerous extraneous factors. There are several steps that can be taken to support higher survey response rates, but first, let’s take a look at how response rate is calculated.

Response rates – moving the needle part 1

The easiest method for calculating response rates is to divide the number of respondents by the number contacted. For example, 400 responses ÷ 1,000 contacts equals a 40% response rate. This formula can be extended, by removing any bounce backs that come from bad email addresses, or in a B2B scenario, those who are out of office. In our previous example, if we remove 100 records from the denominator due to bad email addresses then our survey response rate rises to 44%.

If we want to move the response needle upward then we need to start by having a good idea of who our target audience is and structure our survey and communications to match. If your market is seniors then perhaps a mailed survey is better than an online version. If they are younger professionals, then mobile could be more effective. The survey topic should be aligned with the interests of the audience. For example, I would not be a good candidate to survey for online shopping for handbags and accessories (unless you wanted a “gift giver” perspective).

Keep your surveys short and to the point. I have heard numerous times from numerous sources that clients would like respondents to provide 40 minutes of undivided attention to their survey. Please tell that to the mother with a two-year-old or the CIO of a tech startup. Best practice is to keep your survey to 5 – 7 minutes, perhaps up to 12 minutes if you have an engaged audience and a gamified survey experience. As the survey designer make it possible for respondents to finish where they left off.

How questions are sequenced can significantly impact the cognitive load placed onto a respondent. Complex questions and those dealing with sensitive topics, e.g. recreational drug use, how personal income is spent, etc., should be placed near the end of the survey. This will help to minimize abandonment rate. After all, it is not how many start the survey, but how many complete it that is important.

Other design tips which could impact survey response rate include offering a mobile option. There are question formats, e.g. matrix grids, which do not translate well to mobile so keep that in mind when writing the questionnaire. Showing a completion bar (X% complete) and the judicious use of logic to move respondents effectively through the survey will enhance response rate. Consider the use of gamification for increasing respondent engagement. Quirk’s published a study in 2015 which showed that use of these techniques increased respondent satisfaction with a study of financial services, even though it actually increased the amount of time they spent taking the survey.

In the next post, I will continue to examine methods to increase survey response rates. Some of these include managing contact lists, setting timing and delivery and use of reminders.

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