10 Tips to Increase Online Survey Response Rates

Whenever I work with membership organizations on surveys, they invariably ask the question, “What kind of response rate should we expect?”

Although it’s not very satisfying, my response is always, “It depends.”

Here are 10 ways you can increase the response rate to your next online survey.

1 – Make a habit of diligently scrubbing your membership list and correcting email addresses. Although this sounds elementary, it’s surprising how few organizations have systems in place to contact members whose emails bounce back to the organization. Although I don’t have the exact statistic, I would bet a jelly donut that the percentage of members who change primary email addresses and fail to alert their membership organizations is high. Very high. So if a member doesn’t contact you, then you must contact the member by telephone, postcard or both to get the most recent email. The alternative is that the email is dead–meaning your members aren’t just missing your survey invitation, they are also missing announcements about meetings, news and membership renewals.

2 – Allow enough time for members to respond. Yes, certainly, a survey can be conducted quickly–even overnight, if necessary. But if your concern is to garner maximum participation in a survey, keep it open for at least two weeks. Many people travel and (gasp) don’t check email for a week or more at a time. Others are simply overwhelmed with the volume of email and take weekends to dig to the bottoms of their in boxes.  Whatever the reason, give your members time to do what you ask.

3 – Don’t be afraid of reminders–but keep track of who has responded. For most surveys, responses are brisk in the first couple of days following the invitation, after which there is a steep decline in responses. That’s the time to send a reminder. You’ll notice that you immediately get another nice bump in your response rate, followed by another very quick decline. That’s the time to send another reminder. (Getting the drift here?)

That said, please don’t annoy members or worry that you haven’t received their response by sending reminders to those who have already completed the survey. Your researcher should be able to provide you with unique URLs for each member that can be used to track who has and has not responded. Once a member has completed the survey, simply take them off the list for the next reminder.

4 – Explain clearly why the information you’re seeking is important to the organization. The purpose of the survey may be abundantly clear to you, but is it clear to the member?

I have seen umpteen survey invitations that provide me with no clue whatsoever about what kind of information the organization is looking for, much less why they need my personal information. Are you seeking input to determine the organization’s position on particular issues? Do you need to gauge the effectiveness of a particular program so you can decide if that’s the best use for the organization’s money? Tell them.

5 – Don’t make the survey too long. When was the last time you had 30 minutes to spare sitting at the computer with nothing to do but respond to a bunch of survey questions? Yes, it’s tempting to throw in all the kitchen sink questions while you have the member’s attention, but you do it at the risk of losing their attention. Keep the survey tight and focused. You can always do another survey later.

6 – Try to make the survey interesting. Although you may not have much influence over whether the potential participants find the topic interesting, too many open-ended questions or pages and pages of grid questions are boring. If you must have lots of them, try mixing up the question type during the course of the survey.

7 – Have technical help available for people who are confused or have problems. Invariably someone’s computer times out or they have difficulty with the URL. Technical support may be nothing more than an assurance that the survey is working fine, other responses are coming in and the member should try again in a few minutes. But if you get a handful of those, it could make a point or two of difference in addition to demonstrating to your member that you’re responsive to their problems.

8 – Customize your invitation with the members’ names. Studies have demonstrated that a simple text email personalized with the person’s name (Dear Jim…) draws a higher response rate than an HTML email. HTML emails are most often associated with sales–not with invitations. If your organization’s mail program or personnel skills aren’t up to snuff in the mail merge department, ask your researcher to handle the emailing for you.

9 – Don’t ask questions you already know the answers to. If your membership database is populated with accurate and helpful information on each member, don’t bother asking the member that question. It’ll make the survey shorter and keep the member from wondering, “Don’t they already know that?” Examples include membership type, length of time as a member, state or chapter membership. Your researcher should be able to match your membership database with the survey responses–as long as you have planned for it at the project outset.

10 – Given them a reason to respond–incentivize! Amazing but true. People like stuff. I once saw a lengthy line of specialty physicians at a trade show standing in line to get a free pen with their name lasered on it. These people make thousands or dollars a day and yet they stood in line for an hour for a free pen.

Your members are no different than those specialty physicians. Offering a prize drawing for a free conference registration, an iPod, iPhone or iAnything would work. Recently I have seen very good success with incentivizing members with an instant download of an electronic document once they complete the survey. The advantages to the downloads are that every member gets the prize and fulfillment is automatic.

So what kind of response rate can you expect from your next online survey? Well, that depends. How many of these 10 tips will you use?

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