Trying to increase your survey responses? Look in the mirror!

No organization plans to develop surveys just to have response rates that are less than desirable. While doing research and planning to help one of my clients improve response rates for their Qualtrics surveys, I was struck that the overall strategy was quite similar to my background and experience in Talent Acquisition—namely, to ensure you truly evaluate any and all processes from the perspective of those who will be exposed to them. This keeps us honest in terms of balancing the type and amount of information we, as surveyors, wish to collect with creating an experience that facilitates candid feedback from a relevant sample at a robust rate of response. In other words, evaluate your survey with the process context and your desired demographic(s) in mind, and honestly answer the question: “Would I complete this survey?”

The employment application processes relevant to my daily consultative and configuration work are excellent examples of this premise. As prospective employers, we would like to know as much as we possibly can, as early in the process as possible, to support our hiring decision. However, if we design an application that is incredibly lengthy and detailed, we run a considerable risk of reducing our completion rate to a point where we do not have the pipeline needed to support a quality hire, or even a hire, at all. Similarly, whether directed at employees, applicants, customers, or prospects, surveys must strike an effective balance between data collection, scope, and likely completion rate. Remember, the most detailed questionnaire in the world provides NO benefit when left unanswered.

In addition to the mere scope of information requested, we should also focus on four key questions to optimize response to the survey:

  1. How is the survey presented?
  2. Who is the survey presented to?
  3. How is the survey organized/configured?
  4. What happens once the survey is completed?

Let’s look at each in a bit more detail:

How is the survey presented?

How the survey is presented is formally called mode in survey terms. Perhaps the most important tenet here is keeping that mode aligned to your desired respondents. To again draw an analogy from my recruiting work, you do not hold a job fair for 5 a.m. breakfast cooks at noon and expect many to show up on time or at all on their first day, or at least not as many as would have attended had you held the event at 5 a.m. If your desired audience is tech savvy, then QR codes on receipts that lead to survey pages on mobile devices might be great, but perhaps not with demographics less familiar and comfortable with these tools. Another important aspect is to provide mode options whenever possible and avoid assumptions by piloting various modes and evaluating their performances on survey completion. Lastly, strike while the iron is hot, so to speak, and present the survey within a relevant process context either within or immediately following the process on which you wish to receive feedback.

Who is the survey presented to?

Next, who is being asked to take the survey, or the sample, must be considered. First off, your response rate will improve as you target the survey to a greater degree, as customers and/or employees are not apt to provide feedback on topics with which they’ve had no experience. For example, targeting a survey on the new onboarding process to employees hired in the past six to twelve months would provide a much higher response rate than if it were sent to the entire workforce. Also, try to track response rate by respondent demographic, and take into account loyalty, survey frequency, and a focus on providing positive experiences for first-time respondents to support higher completion rates for future surveys.

How is the survey organized?

Additionally, the way in which the survey is organized should be thought through to mitigate any barriers to completion as much as possible. Redundant, random, and confusing content, along with poor user interface (UI) choices, such as lengthy, unorganized drop-downs or misaligned question-and-answer fields, can significantly limit response rates. One exercise you may consider is to craft the report output you desire and work from that starting point when developing your survey. This may help you to focus on including just the questions necessary to support your informational goals and also help to organize the questions in a manner easily consumed by your target demographics.

What happens once the survey is completed?

Finally, there is the issue of what happens as a result of the survey, or at least the perception of this by those presented with the survey. There are the obvious results we see in our lives as consumers—complete the survey and get a free donut or be entered in our contest. Others simply state that the purpose of the survey is to improve “X” for those it is being presented to, thereby making it in their best interest to respond. We tend to see more success on consumer-focused surveys than perhaps those focused on employees. Organizations must be careful to manage expectations regarding potential outcomes from data collection and to take all necessary steps to make employees feel secure in the fact that their responses to any survey will not impact their standing as employees.

Overall, remember that only data that has been collected can be analyzed and acted upon, so response rate must be a key consideration in any survey project. Make sure you honestly evaluate how well you have aligned the data you want to collect and how willing and able your target demographics are to provide that information. A mile walked in their shoes may lead you to higher response rates and more actionable data.

For more on surveys:

Employee Survey: Does Your Strategy Measure Up?

6 Tips to Get Your Measurement Mojo Back

About the Authors

John Bestgen

John has over 20 years of HCM experience with a focus on Recruiting processes, analysis, and optimization. This includes solution development, system implementations, and ongoing improvement and support. John’s has the ability to provide a holistic, automated solution supporting the entire Recruiting process, including best practice solutions based on client experience with some of the largest and most successful organizations in the world . He currently resides on Cape Cod for the summer and is an active musician in his spare time!