Distribution & Response

How to Increase Online Survey Response Rates


One of the most common questions people will ask about your research is “What was the sample size?” They have good reason to ask, because the credibility of your research depends on the statistical validity of your sample.

Low response rates can be more than just a frustration; they can be survey-killers. An inadequate sample size means your study may not have the statistical credibility it needs to cause change. But there are tools and tactics that help you achieve your response quotas.

Survey response rates are a function of the:

  • Clarity of instructions, purpose and questions
  • Motivation of the respondent to respond
  • Interest of the respondent in the survey
  • Survey length and ease of completing the survey
  • Incentives and rewards for completion

Using Exchange and Incentives to Increase Online Survey Response Rates

The process of using survey techniques to obtain information from potential respondents can be viewed as a special case of social exchange. Very simply, social exchange theory asserts that the actions of individuals are motivated by the return (or rewards) these actions are expected to, or usually do, bring from others.

Whether a given behavior occurs is a function of the perceived costs of completing a survey and the rewards (not necessarily monetary) one expects to receive as a result of completing the survey.

You can increase survey response rates 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.

Using Cognitive Dissonance to Increase Online Survey Response Rates

As used to explain survey response, the theory of cognitive dissonance states that reducing dissonance is an important component of the respond/not respond decision by potential survey respondents.

The process is triggered by receipt of a questionnaire and cover letter asking for participation. 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 becoming a survey respondent.



Using Self-Perception to Increase Online Survey Response Rates

Self-perception theory asserts that people infer attitudes and knowledge of 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. To increase the precision of this paradigm, the concepts of salience (importance of behaviors one has attended to), favorability (the affect or feeling generated by a given behavioral experience), and availability (information in memory) are utilized.

In addition, as a researcher you should create labels (i.e., helpful, kind, generous) to enhance the effects of online survey response. Labeling involves assisting the prospective respondents to classify themselves based on their behavior so that they will act in a manner consistent with the characterization.

Self-perception would predict that using an invitation letter to label behavior as helpful would cause that person to view himself or herself as the kind of person who engages in such behavior; therefore, the likelihood of later label-consistent behavior is increased.

To increase response rates, 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.

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.