Maximizing Your Survey Response Rates

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Posted Jan 21, 2019

The survey response rate refers to the percentage of the total number of survey attempts that are fully completed. When you’re looking to field your survey quickly – in just a few days, perhaps even hours – maximizing the survey response rate is going to be a top priority. Respecting your respondents is a key component to successfully completing project fieldwork quickly and efficiently. And it starts with ensuring your survey is going to the correct sample from your target population.

Incidence Rate: What is it, and Why is it Important?

The percentage of people who are eligible to take your survey is known as the incidence rate. It determines how many potential respondents need to be screened to reach your total sample size.

When developing your research plan, you’ll determine who your target audience is, or the sample of respondents you want to interview. If your target audience is vast and almost anyone would be eligible to take the survey, the incidence rate is going to be very high, like in a ‘gen. pop.’ study.

As you begin including screening criteria – such as certain demographic, lifestyle, and behavioral traits – your incidence rate will lower because your target audience is narrowing. Sometimes you may have certain quotas you want to hit (age group quotas, purchase behavior quotas, census balancing on certain traits, etc.), and these will also impact your overall incidence rate. In cases of very niche targeting, the incidence rate may be very low, such as 5%, where only 1 out of 20 people is eligible to take your survey.

Knowing the estimated incidence rate for your target audience will help you anticipate the cost and timing implications for running your survey. Generally, the more difficult-to-reach an audience is, the more expensive it will be to survey them because there’s a smaller population pool to pull from.

But if you have a small budget or are in a hurry, this doesn’t mean you should automatically target everyone to take your survey so you can get in to and out of field quickly and begin analysis sooner. Quite the opposite – for every survey, you must apply any screening criteria necessary to focus your targeting solely on your intended audience. This way, you’re not wasting time and money collecting unhelpful data (and importantly, not frustrating respondents who aren’t interested in or knowledgeable about your product or service). Internet surveys (as opposed to in-home interviewing, telephone interviewing, or mall intercepts) are excellent for refining the recruitment process and streamlining the identification of eligible respondents using pre-qualification or screening questions.

The Questionnaire Must Speak for Itself

Once you’ve screened for the right respondents, you want them to finish taking your survey completely and provide you with quality data. So, you must enable them to do so by providing a high-quality survey design. There are no moderators to clarify what a question means or encourage an in-depth open-ended response. The questionnaire must do all the talking for you. These tips will set you up for success:

  •      Start your survey by developing rapport through proper question phrasing and order.
  •      Use introductions/ instructions sparingly because respondents may shy away from taking a survey that requires too much reading.
  •      Ask permission or provide notice before introducing sensitive subjects.
  •      Ensure your questionnaire is written in language that it is unambiguous and comprehensive, so all respondents interpret the questions and answer choices identically as you intended them.
  •      Keep your survey to a reasonable length and complexity – don’t make your respondents work too hard.
  •      Consider displaying a progress bar, so respondents can have a sense of how much more survey they’ve yet to complete.

You don’t want them to be annoyed or bored and then exit your survey without finishing, which negatively impacts your response rate. Make your survey concise and as interesting as possible, while always respecting your respondents. If time permits, it’s a great idea to test your survey in a qualitative setting where you can immediately follow up with respondents and collect their feedback on question clarity, etc., and refine the questionnaire as needed before fielding on a larger scale.

Motivate Respondents with Incentives

Refusals are a primary cause of low response rates. One of the best ways to reduce the number of refusals is by giving respondents an incentive to fully complete the survey. This makes sense given our reward-driven society. Incentives can be monetary or non-monetary. The amount of the incentive will drive the response rate, either up or down. For niche audiences, you may need to decide if the cost of a large monetary incentive outweighs the value of the additional information collected.  

The Takeaways

The path to maximizing response rates shouldn’t wait until fieldwork is ready to begin. When developing your research plan, you’ll need to determine who your target audience is based on your research and business objectives. Narrowing down this audience is key to understanding the incidence rate, which impacts fielding cost and timing. It is an important step, however, to ensure your data is coming from eligible and qualified respondents.

You’ll also keep this audience in mind when writing the actual questionnaire – making sure to develop rapport, use language that is unambiguous, and that the survey is of reasonable length and complexity. Adequately incentivizing respondents will help motivate complete participation.

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