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How to increase online survey response rates

11 min read
When it comes to surveys, size matters. Having enough people respond to your survey is essential for getting an adequate sample size – and that’s a must-have for statistical validity. Here’s the need-to-know on response rates and how to boost them.


What is a survey response rate?

The survey response rate is the number of people in your sample who successfully completed your survey. Theoretically, it could be anywhere from 0% to 100%, although it’s almost unheard of to get a 100% response rate.

How to calculate your survey response rate

To work out your survey response rate, you can use the following formula:

Response rate = Number of people who completed the survey / total number of people you sent it to x 100

This will give you your response rate as a percentage.

Response rate vs. completion rate – what’s the difference?

When you start to research response rates, you’re likely to come across another related term – survey completion rate. The two things are similar but not interchangeable. Here’s the difference:

As we described above, response rate is the percentage of your sample who completed your survey. Measuring it depends on having a record of who you sent the survey to, so it doesn’t apply with open-access survey scenarios like site intercepts or suggestion boxes where anyone can take part whenever they choose.

Meanwhile, the completion rate is the percentage of people who finished the survey once they’d started it. It’s a useful metric because it helps you identify how easy your survey is to take and whether there are any roadblocks or pain points with the survey-taking experience.

It also helps to alert you about unevenness of survey data – if there is a low completion rate, you’re likely to have more answers to the questions at the start of your survey and a lot fewer for your final questions.

Completion rate isn’t about the completions relative to the sample size, but relative to the number of people who made a start on the survey. So it’s useful for when you don’t have a well-defined sample or survey panel.

What are the benefits of a high response rate?

Having a good response rate is important because it has an impact on the quality of your data.

Smaller response rates mean a smaller sample size. When the sample size is small, there’s a greater chance that it won’t be representative of the population you’re interested in, because the people who showed up to take your survey may not be diverse enough to reflect everybody in the target group.

If within a small group of respondents there’s someone with a characteristic that’s very unusual in your population, their answers will make up a large proportion of your results and create a big skew in your data.

Even worse, having a low response rate may reflect bias in terms of who took the survey. There’s a chance that your response rate is low because you missed out on hearing from whole groups of people, rather than random individuals. This might happen if your survey design excluded some people somehow.

For example, you may have chosen an online survey platform that was too complex and off-putting for older people, or didn’t cater for those with impaired sight. Or the issue may have been in your timing, for example, if you sent out your survey during a religious holiday which excluded a large demographic group.

With all that said, there is increasing debate over how much response rate matters, with some experts arguing that there’s more accuracy in smaller respondent groups.

So it may be true that there’s more flexibility around sample size than was previously thought, but it’s still a safe bet that larger sample sizes will protect against skew and provide more reliable results.

What is the average survey response rate?

Defining an average survey response rate is tricky, because there are so many variables in play making every piece of survey research unique.

Estimates and ranges abound online, with different companies and organizations offering their own averages. Typically, the figures seem to fall between 20% and 30%. A rate below 10% is considered very low.

Ultimately, what really matters is the number of responses you get for your survey, not the rate of response or completion. You could have an amazing completion rate of 80%, but if only 30 people started the survey in the first place, you’d still end up with just 24 sets of answers. For this reason, it’s a good idea to cast your net wide and recruit enough participants to still provide a good sample size if your response or completion rates are poor.

Need more respondents for your survey? Talk to our Research Services team to find out how we can help. With access to over 40m, respondents, we can help you get data from the audience you need.

What factors affect survey response rate?

Survey response rates are subject to a whole host of factors. Here are a few of the variables that can affect your rate of success.

The survey itself

  • Survey type (whether it’s an online platform, paper questionnaire or done over the phone)
  • Ease of taking the survey
  • Clarity of instructions
  • Question wording
  • Question type (some are more mentally taxing than others)
  • Survey flow / logic
  • Survey topic (sensitive or niche topics may get fewer responses and completions)
  • Survey length

Respondents

  • Motivation of the respondent to respond
  • Interest of the respondent in the survey
  • Prior relationship with respondents (whether they’ve taken part before)
  • Panel membership (those who are part of a panel are more likely to answer than those who aren’t)
  • Quality of the recruitment process
  • Invitation email wording (if applicable)
  • Demographic factors (education, lifestyle etc.)

Recruitment and panel management

How to increase your survey response rates

Low response rates can be more than just a frustration; they can be survey-killers. Fortunately, there are tools and tactics that help you achieve your response quotas. Here’s How to boost survey response rates:

1. Use incentives

Rewards and incentives have been proven time and again to increase survey participation – or to put it another way, to boost the probability of survey response and completion. Put your incentives budget to good use with the following tips:

  • A small incentive for each respondent is better than a large incentive for a few
  • Raffles generally produce a lower response rate than a small incentive for each respondent
  • Appeal to the desire of respondents to feel important by explaining how their feedback will change the status quo
  • Clearly explain to respondents how you will use their feedback and who will see it
  • Tell respondents why you chose them for this survey

Larger incentives for survey completion will generally produce higher response rates. These incentives are often offered to the first 100 respondents to complete the survey.

Find out more about using incentives to boost your surveys

2. Use a survey panel

To increase survey participation, many researchers also decide that they should build and manage their own research panel, or group of pre-selected respondents who volunteer to answer surveys. This can be an effective time saver because you don’t need to hunt for respondents for each new survey project.

Survey panels are a great investment if you plan to conduct a large number of surveys, you don’t have a suitable “captive audience” in the form of an employee or customer base, or if you know you want to keep surveying the same group of people over a period of time in a longitudinal study.

Get started with Research Services

3. Use cognitive dissonance

One of the lesser-known ways to improve survey response rates is to use psychological theory.

The theory of cognitive dissonance states that reducing dissonance is an important component of the decision to respond – or not. In other words, you can promote the behavior you want by framing survey taking as being in line with someone’s values and beliefs about themselves.

By carefully crafting a questionnaire and cover letter asking for participation, you can appeal to a person’s values in a way that makes them more likely to respond. Assuming that failure to respond might be inconsistent with a person’s self-perception of being a helpful person, or perhaps at least one who honors reasonable requests, failure to respond will produce a state of dissonance that the potential respondent seeks to reduce by taking the survey.

4. Tap into self-perception theory

Another tool from the world of psychology, self-perception theory is the idea that people infer attitudes and knowledge about themselves through interpretations made about the causes of their behavior.

Interpretations are made on the basis of self-observation. To the extent that a person’s decision to respond to a survey is attributed to internal causes and is not perceived as due to circumstantial pressures, a positive attitude toward survey response develops.

These attitudes (self-perception) then affect behavior. The self-perception paradigm has been extended to the broad issue of online survey response. In other words, if you decide you’ve responded to a survey because you’re a helpful person, you’re more likely to want to respond again to reinforce that positive belief.

As a researcher you should create labels (i.e., helpful, kind, generous) to use in your communications to enhance the effects of online survey response. Labeling helps respondents to classify themselves based on their behavior so that they will act in a manner consistent with the characterization.

Overall, using incentives, psychological theories, and panel groups, you should see a general uptick in your survey response rate as well as higher-quality data.

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