One of the most common questions we get in Student Life Studies is how to increase response rate, especially for electronic surveys. Students are over-surveyed, so just because you can technically send out a survey to 65,000 students doesn’t mean you should (Hint: you should rarely, if ever, send out a survey to your whole population—Just Don’t Do It!). There is a science, and a bit of luck, that goes along with increasing response rates. As with so many aspects of assessment, you must keep your audience in mind every step of the way. Here are a few suggestions based on our staff experiences, as well as Dillman, Smyth and Christina (2009).
1. Make the survey interesting, relevant, and brief. No one wants to take a long survey that doesn’t matter to them. We found that the response rate of surveys sent to a particular group (organizations, participants in a specific program, etc.) responded more than those sent a random sample survey.
2. Make the cover email interesting, relevant, and brief. You need to hook potential respondents in, even before they might click on a link. Have the email come from someone they know, make the subject line engaging, and explain the purpose of the survey and the importance of their participation. If you can, provide examples of how you have used their feedback in the past.
3. Set a deadline. If you are like me, you might put off doing something because it doesn’t have a clear deadline to establish any urgency. Most surveys stay open about 7-14 days. You rarely need to keep a survey open longer than that.
4. For students, send surveys early in the semester, on Mondays or Thursdays, and in the afternoon. A few years ago, we looked at response rates based on months, days of initial invitation, and time of data of invitation. It was eye opening: timing matters. Also, know what other large surveys are going out around the same time, so you don’t impede each other’s efforts.
5. If you have the ability, you might want to pre-notify you potential respondents that a survey is coming to them. Then, people anticipate getting the survey and mentally plan time to take it. Notification can be email, word of mouth, social media, mail, flyers, etc.
6. Plan for 2-3 reminders with different messages. Each time a reminder is sent, you will get a spike in responses. The initial email will always garner to most responses (usually in the first 24 hours), then each day will decrease until you send a reminder. Then the response rate will jump a little, and the pattern will be the same each reminder. There is a fine balance between sending reminders and making potential respondents annoyed.
7. Incentives have mixed reviews on impacting response rate. You have to balance the cost of incentives and administering them with the potential benefit of increased response. You also have to decide whether every respondent gets something small or a few people will win something large. We have not found a significant impact on response rate using incentives. See #6 for an alternative.
8. Say please and thank you, just like your mom taught you. Ask for advice or help and show positive regard for people’s time and effort. Personalize the communication and make the task seem important. In the email and on the survey, be sure to thank people for their input.
9. Ensure confidentiality (to the extent you can). People will be more likely to be honest when they trust you to protect their information.
10. Ask Student Life Studies to help you! We have expertise and practice in this area and can guide you through the process.
Following these tips will help you increase your response rate. Even when the response rate is lower than you want, there are things we can look at to help you understand whether your data is going to be useful/representative of your population. Plan, Plan, Plan!