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A few reasons the response rates to your research survey are low.

I find there are six key reasons your audience doesn’t respond to your questionnaires.  In order of importance, here they are:

  1. You have never responded to issues raised in previous surveys
  2. Your questionnaire is too long.
  3. You are asking the wrong questions.
  4. Your survey isn’t relevant to your target audience.
  5. You don’t a clear objective in mind.
  6. You are expecting too much.

Let’s unpack each of those reasons and see if they help you create a more successful survey result.

You have never responded to issues raised in previous surveys

If you have a history of sending surveys (for example, to your employees) and not responding to the issues raised in the results, why should your respondents take the time to send back replies to future surveys?  This is the number one reason surveys to your employees and customers don’t do well.

Before you send your next survey, think what you will do about any issues that come up.  Will you at the very least respond to people who provide contact information?

Your questionnaire is too long. 

Control freaks take note of the inverse law of surveys: the number of replies is inversely related to the number of questions.  Asking people to respond to a dozen questions is insulting and presumes your respondents have all the time in the world, plus the motivation, to hang in with your questionnaire.  Does this mean that long form surveys should never be done?  No, but it does mean you should be targeting respondents who may be highly motivated to provide details.  For example, an insurance company might want to have in depth information about how well claims are being handled and if claimants were satisfied with the process and the result.  A respondent group of that nature is very likely intensely interested in providing feedback.

Your survey is not relevant to your targeted respondents.

This may come as a shock to some people, but many customers (or employees) simply don’t give much of a damn about what you want to know.  They don’t see a good reason to invest time answering your question.  You, therefore, need to work to make it worthwhile.  Will that be a gift?  (By the way, entering the respondent in a drawing is pretty much never going to work.  The minute the word “drawing” comes up, respondent interest goes south.)  Whatever exchange you offer, ask yourself this question: would I get up from my desk, walk to the front door of the office to get whatever it is you’re offering?

If you’re lucky enough to survey on a topic of interest to your respondents, that helps.  If the respondents see a benefit for the time spent, that helps even more. 

You don’t have a clear objective for the survey.

What is it you want to know?  Why do you want the information?  My experience is that a few phone calls to a few of the proposed respondents will help you decide two important things: what you need to be asking about, as opposed to what you think you should be asking about; and second, just how big a deal is the issue to your respondent.   A small amount of advance scoping can make survey response better.  You may discover your original objective is out off focus.  If that happens, back off and start over.

You are expecting too much from the survey result.

Market research people need to remember that nobody is out there waiting with bated breath for them to send a survey.  If they are even slightly inclined to respond, they want to have only a brief interaction with your questionnaire that is fall-off-the-log easy.  You will have to have a very narrowly focused objective and a clearly worded set of questions.  And you must have those questions presented in a very easy-to-answer format.

A few other traps to avoid.

Many years ago, research people fell in love with multiple choice check boxes.  True, it is much easier to retrieve and compare data if it is grouped in discrete categories and check boxes (for example) certainly help.  But with the advances in application programming languages, it is much simpler and cheaper to write code with logic that eliminates check boxes and radio buttons.  The same programming logic can organize open-ended replies and organize them into analyzable groups.  The take-away: don’t sacrifice the quality of response to the questionnaire format.  By all means, use radio buttons and check boxes.  But don’t overlook the value of a free-form, open ended response.

Explain to respondents why their answers will help you.  Be brief.  Be specific.  Be sure your reason makes sense to them.

Dear Customer: We recently shipped our Inflatable Floating Hammer to you.

We want to know three things:

(1) did the package arrive as soon as we promised,

(2) did our product arrive in good condition, and

(3) does the product live up to your expectations?

We appreciate your time to answer the survey questions.

Your answer will help us make improvements in our product and delivery.

 PLEASE NOTE: the survey response form includes room for you to give all the details you consider to be important. 

You may also upload photos to us if you wish.

If you provide your name and contact information, we’ll get back to you within 48 hours.

Note the above illustrates a simple, informative reason to the respondent.  Ditto a good reason for their time investment.  It includes a “thank you” which is always required.  Importantly, it includes a way for the respondent to upload documents and pictures along with extended comments.

Make responding to your survey very simple and easy.

Don’t mess around with the survey execution.  Provide it online.  Every response you ask should be executed in one click.  Don’t expect respondents to spend time thinking too much about how to answer.  (If you require a thoughtful response, set up respondent expectations in advance and carefully execute your questionnaire.)

Remember that 8% of the population is color-blind, to one degree or another; and 6% have visual impairment (that’s between 24 and 12 million people, 12 years old or older).  In addition, the majority of people are viewing websites on low to moderate resolution screens that measure less than 15” diagonally.  Add all that up and you can see why you should be very careful about how your survey questionnaire is designed and how well it executes.

Be very cautious about required fields.

Given all the very reasonable fears about security and privacy, be cautious about the information you “require”.  If you get the email address, why do you need to also ask for the full address monty?  Or the phone number.  And, god forbid, don’t be one of those people who brainlessly assume you should ask for everything, just in case.  If you want to contact respondents after their reply, say that up-front and explain why you need to do that.  I find it wise to ask for just an email address (work or personal, depending on your relationship with them).  Remember the goal: get as many responses as possible.  Don’t put a respondent off by requiring too much information.

If you need technical information, like model or serial numbers, explain where they can be found. 

There are a lot of people in the world who are not technically or mechanically inclined.  And there are many frail people among us who simply can’t deal with turning a product upside down to locate a number.   Again, make sure you explain why you need the number and what can happen if you don’t get it.

The golden rule.

Respect your respondent.  Don’t presume.  Don’t waste their time.  Be honest.  And for heaven’s sake, please don’t fail to respond to issues they go to the trouble to reveal.

 A final word on response rates.  What’s typical? 

I hate this question.  The true answer is, “God only knows”.  Who are you surveying?  What is your relationship with them?  What is your objective?  What’s in it for the respondent?  Will you offer a reward?  Is your questionnaire well designed and offer high “respond-ability”?

That being said, when a company surveys its customers with an online instrument, a response rate of 5-10% is a reasonable expectation.  Anything over 10% is a home-run.  If a company surveys employees, guaranteeing anonymity (which better damn well be the truth), an online survey could be expected in the range of 8%-15%.  But note: if the questionnaire is sloppy and provides management with a way to make a pretty good guess of who said what, then forget the survey.  The response rate will be low, and the reliability of the results will be zero.

Don’t let a perceived low response rate deter you. The dollar value of a 5% return is still positive.  And if you are smart enough to survey groups over time, even a 5% return rate is worth your investment.

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George Self is a veteran marketing, compliance and tech SME.  His company, A&M Solutions is headquartered in Asheville.  Contact him at gself@am-solutions.us or 828-230-5802 or view the website: http://am-solutions.us