Increase Your Online Survey Response Rates

Survey Design, Invitations, Timing and Other Tips that Boost Participation

I worked with one client who was resigned to one percent response rates on her organization’s surveys. There was little I could do to convince her that we could move the needle. On the other end of the spectrum, I worked with one association executive who was fully committed to a maximum response rate. Together we worked to get an amazing 80 percent of that association’s members to respond to an important survey.

How did we do it? There is no single tactic that we used to bring the survey responses rolling in. Rather, it was the cumulative impact of many small tactics that made the difference.


What can you do to significantly impact your final survey participation rate? Plenty, and it begins when planning your survey and continues until you finish fieldwork. Some tactics are more important than others, but implementing as many of these best practices as possible will pay off.

Make your survey relevant and engaging. This should go without saying, but it’s amazing how many surveys I have taken that had hardly anything to do with my interests or that were just downright boring. (I love taking surveys!) Surveys are relevant when you are reaching the right people with topics that are of interest to them. Engaging surveys are short. Ten to fifteen minutes should be a goal, although many membership associations get away with longer surveys. Financial and pharmaceutical companies do not. Engaging surveys also employ a variety of different question types, such as multiple selection check boxes, slider scales and ranking a small number of items (no more than three). And while we’re at it, don’t overuse the “next” button. Group several questions on a single page before requiring the participant to click “next” and wait for the page to load.

Optimize your survey design for mobile device participation. Although most survey participants complete surveys on their desktops or laptops, more and more people are completing surveys on their mobile devices. Naturally you’ll want to make sure your survey software platform is mobile friendly. You’ll also want to consider the question types that make completing the survey on a smart phone or tablet difficult. Open-ended responses are difficult, of course, as are grid questions. Stick with multiple choice response options as much as possible.

When you’re ready to launch your survey, spend the time to craft an engaging email that grabs your potential participants’ attention. The design should be attractive but not look like an advertisement. A short letter format with a personalized salutation (“Dear Tom”) works best. The email should come from someone the participant may recognize, if possible, such as the president of the organization or a well-respected and prominent member or celebrity in the industry. Tell them how long you expect the survey to take–and be honest! Make the call to action clear with a prominent URL as well as a graphic button that says something such as “Take the Survey Now” or “Register Your Opinion.” Answer the question “What’s in it for me?” Explain why you are asking the recipient for their time and what you will be doing with the survey results and how it will impact them or why they should care.

Consider the use of incentives. Prize drawings work with some groups. Offers of discounts or free downloads of publications, reports or access to a webinar or other online content will also boost response rates as long as the incentive is interesting to the participant and perceived as having some value. If yours is a for-profit company and you are surveying professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, veterinarians or high-level executives, expect to pay cash. Research panels, such as the VetMEDResearch panel of small animal veterinarians make this process easy.

Time the launch of your survey for maximum response. The online survey software company SurveyMonkey analyzed response rates from more than 20,000 surveys to find the days of the week with the highest response rates. They found that Mondays had the highest response rate of any weekday. Fridays had the lowest response rates. (They did not include weekends in the analysis.) If you have a choice of when to launch, waiting until Monday may well be worth it. (You can read more about the methodology they used for this analysis here.)

Send reminders. Most survey responses will come in during the first two days and then drop off precipitously after that. You can get a significant boost by providing each participant with their own URL, which will allow you to send reminders only to the people who haven’t completed the survey.

Allow enough time for participants to complete the survey. You may get most of your responses during the first week with a boost after a reminder. But many people wait to respond to surveys when they feel they have the time. Other people wait several days before sorting through their email. Allowing two or three weeks for field time will ensure you get the best response rate.

Remember that association with the 80 percent response rate? Once we had about a 60 percent response rate the association executive started beating the bushes. She personally called all the chapter presidents and asked them to reach out to their members to make sure they were aware of and had completed the survey. That tactic alone boosted the response rate another 20 percent.

An 80 percent response rate isn’t guaranteed even if you implement all of these tactics. But I can guarantee it will be higher than if you didn’t!

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