How to increase survey response rates when participation is low

Jack Holmes
November 8, 2023
How to increase survey response rates when participation is low

After all the effort put into defining our research hypotheses, crafting questions, and building logic, we’ve learned nothing. Not enough people have responded to our survey and we’re no better off now than we were before.

It’s one of the worst scenarios to be in as a researcher. Fear not though — there’s plenty of methods to breathe life into your survey before giving up.

Check your survey actually works

It might sound obvious but everyone gets caught once in a while. Use an incognito browser and click the link that’s been sent out to participants to check that it works. Then go through your survey and review all the skip and conditional logic (including edge cases) to confirm it’s functioning exactly as it should.

Tip: Always send your survey to a couple of colleagues to test in the live environment before sharing with participants. Remember to delete their responses once you’ve confirmed everything is working.

Switch your survey distribution method

If you’re struggling to get responses from an email, why not try social media or another channel? Getting your survey in front of the right audience might take a bit of trial and error, but it’s worth the effort. Plus, figuring out which distribution methods work well for different types of audiences and surveys now will save you time in the future.

In B2B markets, it’s worth considering tapping into professional communities and networks. Linkedin is a great source of professionals as are Slack groups. For instance if you’re looking for responses from researchers try posting in the ResearchOps Community. If you’re looking for railway engineers, they might have a Facebook group.

Don’t be afraid to go old school either. Printing and posting a survey may feel dated, but distributing offline can unlock a treasure trove of insights from people you might not otherwise hear from. Make sure people with low digital literacy and those that don’t have access to devices or reliable internet connectivity are heard, too.

Tip: Use analytics to evaluate how different communication channels perform. Also consider experimenting with the timing of your communications. Every audience is different, but start out by avoiding Friday afternoons (when everyone is checked out, thinking about the weekend) and Mondays (when everyone is heads down planning for the week ahead). Tuesdays are usually a sensible place to start.

Your survey might be too long or complicated

It’s tempting to ask every possible question and aim to create the perfect data set. Stakeholders will always want to include ‘just one more question’. It’s super important to remember the longer and more complex the survey is, the higher your abandonment rate will be.

10 minutes or less is ideal

Melanie Revilla and Carlos Ochoa set out to find the ideal survey length. Their research published in the International Journal of Market Research found that 60% of people felt the ideal survey length is 10 minutes or less. 

It’s not that simple though

Abandonment rates of 10-minute surveys have been increasing year after year, demonstrating the importance of keeping your surveys short. Researchscape annually publishes abandon rate figures and has seen an increase from 23% in 2017 to 53% in 2022. They cite the increase in mobile device usage as a primary driver of shorter attention spans for surveys.

Tip: If you have lots of questions to ask, consider splitting your survey into multiple shorter surveys. Better to get enough responses for some questions, than not enough for any at all.

There’s no reason to complete the survey 

People don’t wake up in the morning excited for surveys to land in their inbox. You can’t just expect them to give you a bunch of valuable insights for no reason at all. That’s why it’s important to give them a reason by stating a clear, compelling objective for your survey — including what’s it in it for them.

Here are four examples:

1. Shape the future of a product or brand

Who Gives A Crap is a sustainable toilet paper brand. They’ve positioned their survey as an opportunity to “help us make decisions that affect our business and future impact”. For purpose-driven companies in particular, this is an incredibly powerful technique for getting survey responses — and building your brand while you’re at it.

2. Give immediate feedback after an experience 

British Airways sends surveys after a specific interaction with a customer to gather feedback while the experience is still fresh in the customer’s mind. If you had a specifically good or bad flight, it’s very easy to click one of the feedback options which at a minimum captures a rating of your experience. And if you had a particularly good or bad experience, you may feel more inclined to complete the survey that follows.

3. Make it personal

Apple asks for specific feedback on a named team member that the customer interacted with during their store visit. Even if you don’t intend on answering a survey, just opening the email makes you think about the answer. In this case, all the customer has to do is click a button to make their voice heard, and boom – Apple has its answer.

4. Give something back

Rental scooter brand Voi offered a bundle of incentives for taking their survey. Not only do you get a free 30-minute ride, but they will also enter you into a drawer to win an Amazon voucher and Voi merch.

Tip: Be clear how the information will be used and what benefit people can expect by completing the survey. Most of the time this can be as simple as ‘help us improve your experience’. If you can offer a prize draw or even a cash incentive for completion these will likely boost participation significantly. (Make sure to avoid professional survey takers though.)

Related read: How do incentives impact bias in UX research?

Beware of survey fatigue 

Sometimes it’s just a case of bad timing. Maybe your audience has been receiving a lot of survey requests from different companies, and they’re simply fed up with answering the same questions about the future of this or that industry. 

Be mindful that you may be the cause of survey fatigue. If you send a survey after every customer interaction, that’s likely too much. Research recruitment tools like Great Question have guardrails that enable you to set parameters around how often you contact people and ensure you don’t burn them out.

Not seeing any change after providing feedback is another common reason for not answering surveys. If a customer is engaging with your research regularly but never notices any difference in their experience, they may decide to give up. Because why bother?

Here's a great example from the UK Government HMRC department on how to share insights learned from a survey with the community that took the time to respond.

Tip: Take care to ensure that your organization isn’t the source of survey fatigue. Be mindful of the times you choose to survey people and ensure it’s not too often.

Try another research method

There are loads of effective research methods out there. Sometimes the one we’ve chosen isn’t the best fit. Don’t be disheartened; take what you can from the data you receive and try a different method.

Tip: Planning a mixed methods research approach reduces the negative impact of any one single method failing.

Great Question has over 40 free research templates to to help you get started, from surveys to interviews and more. If the first attempt doesn’t go to plan, go back to the drawing board and try again with these tips.

Jack Holmes is an independent UX researcher and designer from Bristol, UK. For 10 years he's supported the biggest corporations and tiniest startups to understand people and build better products. He's chaired several UXPA International conferences and enjoys sharing insights and stories at events around the world.

Similar posts

Make Great Question your home for UX research