How can I improve survey participation?

Low survey participation is a widespread concern. Let’s talk about how to tackle that challenge.

You Have Two Levers

Survey participation rate is typically measured as - how many people took the survey vs. how many people got the notice to take the survey. Today with many survey campaigns operated via email campaigns, there are three drop-offs, email open, email click-through, and finally survey opt-in after seeing the opening text of the survey.

We have seen employee surveys getting 90% participation, customer surveys getting 50% participation, general public surveys getting 20% participation… We have also seen less successful surveys that got only 0.1% to 2% participation. Even though Survature almost guarantees a high survey completion rate of more than 70%, you may not get enough responses when participation rates are as low as 0.5%. So low participation is indeed a problem worth solving.

There are in general two levers to cause people to want to take a survey:

(Lever-1) Rapport with your audience - the engagement factor that leads to volunteering information

(Lever-2) Monetary or other incentives - in essence, pay for information

The Old Way

Regarding the first lever, rapport - traditional belief is that it works in theory but falls flat on its face in practice. That is true when you use an old tool that (1) gives everyone a “short” 15-minute long exam-style survey taking experience, (2) requires asking the same question multiple times to altogether measure priority, preference and satisfaction, and (3) consumes so much time and effort yet produces unclear information that prevents decision makers from taking meaningful actions. Bad experience and little hope for real action - this combination outweighs rapport, wears down rapport and leads to prolonged apathy towards surveys.

Regarding the second lever, incentives - traditional belief is it does get more participation, although it leads to low confidence in the data. The worry is whether people who are incentivized only by money can represent your true audience.

Without a better tool, the widespread concern about participation has caused people to almost always associate survey with incentives. But there is a better way.

Messaging Augments Rapport

Based on all of the successes we have seen with our users, rapport indeed works, although it doesn’t work by itself.

  • You need to communicate “why I should help you” in a simple, relevant, and tangible way.
    It’s a little bit of an art to get it right and should be customized case by case. While that’s hard to speak about in general, there are many general examples that are known to not work. For example, “this is a very important study”, “this will guide our research …”, “this is the biggest study (of its kind)”, “this is a multi-institution effort …”. The worst is of course “please participate to be part of a drawing of [some gift]”.
  • You can get better results by including some unexpected but tangible touches in the message. There are a lot of communication and/or PR theories on why this works. A top-level summary is that this helps make your messaging memorable. This is actually very easy to achieve when you use Survature, because the survey taking experience is decidedly different. The survey taking time is very tangibly and surprisingly short.

Here are a few example messages that have worked well.

1 - “Dear patrons, we appreciate your recent attendance at the Tennessee Theatre and care about your opinion. Please take this 5-minute survey so that we may learn how to improve your future experiences at the Theatre.”

2 - “Hi everyone, thank you for being a [company] customer. We really want to improve the quality of our customer service. This should take less than 2 minutes. - Tim / [company]”

3 - “On behalf of the staff of [business], thank you for taking two minutes to share your thoughts regarding [service / event / product]. Your insights provide significant direction to [business].”

4 - “Team, [business unit] is committed to building a great place to work for our team. As we continue on this journey, only you can help us understand what matters to YOU. Please take 115 seconds to share your thoughts. YOU shape the workplace.”

5 - “Team, please help us by taking 3 minutes to share your opinions about the safety culture at [business unit].”

Please note, any promise of short survey taking time has to be real. If you want us to help estimating your survey taking time (or how to shorten the survey), please message us from your dashboard.

Avoid Information Deficit Assumption

When drafting your messaging, please absolutely avoid information deficit assumption. Recent research shows that mere lack of knowledge [about your mission, your company’s mission, your non-profit’s mission] is rarely the lone reason for lack of participation. Lack of action / participation is instead more likely a motivation problem.

There are many (sometimes conflicting) theories on motivation. While there is not a silver bullet, there are some general tips to consider. If you suspect the audience don’t care about an issue, you must consider values and optimistic bias. If you suspect it’s an attitude-behavior problem, that is “not all who care act”, you need to consider effort, memory, infrastructure and self-efficacy issues.

Regardless, we have found short, targeted, thoughtful messaging to work 3x to 5x better than poorly created messages. Overly forceful or “preachy” language, or overuse of social norms cues can backfire or lead to social loafing. Emotional appeals can work well but please proceed very carefully. For example, fear messages are really bad for certain audience.

Humor is generally overlooked but can be surprisingly effective for attention and source liking. For Example, for safety culture, is your supervisor Super Man, Bat Man, Homer Simpson, Smurfette or Oscar the Grouch? I bet you’ve never seen 100 engineers and scientists asking each other about whether they have taken a survey. It’s wonderful how Survature helped foster a really productive organization-wide conversation. It is extremely satisfying for us to be part of something positive like that. Please feel free to talk to us when you craft the messaging for your surveys.

To Incentivize or Not

Your team, your customer, your partners are innately willing to provide information to you, because your doing a better job directly benefits them. Survey weariness stemmed from inferior tools.

  • They cost too much time. 15-18 minutes is too precious for anyone to spare these days, given everyone’s always-on multi-tasking schedules.
  • They come across as wasting people’s time. Surveys lacking focus prime people’s mind to wonder - where are you going with this? How in the world is this information useful (and in the end helpful for improving your services to me)?
  • They are inconvenient. If people can provide their opinions to you on any device (including smart phone) and be done in 2 minutes, why wouldn’t they?

Obviously, this is a tool problem, not a monetary incentive problem. Even though there are people who will take survey for money, those “professional survey takers” are rarely representative of your real audience.

So our general opinion is that “incentives” do not lead to more quality data. Sometimes you may want to throw in an incentive as a customer- or employee-appreciation. That changes the equation a bit, please make sure everyone gets it. “A chance to win” is off-putting. Quoting from Daniel Kahneman’s book, the desire to help involves just people’s “System-1”, the calculation of “whether I have the chance to win” triggers “System-2”. You really just want to appeal to the more charitable System-1 to get more participation.

Is Market Research Different?

Yes. The parameters at play are totally different for market research that involves talking to people who are your potential customers or your competitor’s customers. If you have that kind of surveys, please talk to our user support about setting up gating questions, quotas, sub-quotas and integration with survey panel systems via web-APIs.