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Response rate—the number of people who answered the survey out of the total population in the sample—can impact the perceived value of the survey, especially for those stakeholders looking for dependable, valid, reliable results without sampling bias.

Evaluating response rate issues is important for researchers, since higher response rates can increase statistical power, reduce confidence intervals, and increase credibility among key stakeholders. Response rates can be very high if the respondents are motivated and the survey is well-executed.

It has been shown in studies over the past couple of decades that the cost-benefit of increasing the response rate is often not justified in terms of statistical difference. However, since missing data is not random, it is preferable to get a higher response rate from a small, random sample, than to get a low response rate from a large sample. Thus, the size of the sample isn’t as important as the response rate.

The main reasons for non-response is that the person doesn’t receive the survey (not at the location, wrong address, etc), or refuses to participate, respond, or return the survey. The first of these can be minimized with due diligence in the planning of the survey. The second involves personal perspective, and requires some study of the survey population with regard to the best survey tool for that population and the interests and motivations of the population.

Professor Dillman found that “people are most likely to respond when they expect and trust that rewards of responding to a questionnaire outweigh the costs associated with responding.” However, incentives are not always necessary to get a good response rate. Often the best participation incentive is that respondents’ feedback will be heard and useful for some purpose that they are interested in.

With respect to methods of survey administration, “It has been found that web, email, and phone-based data-collection methods can achieve response rates that are nearly as good, if not better, than traditional mail surveys.”  Yet, overall, in person and administered surveys maintain the highest survey results.

So, what can you take away from this Datassist survey series today?

Here are some general guidelines to get higher response rates:

  • A mode of communication of the survey that encourages response.
  • A clear purpose or survey objective.
  • Shorter surveys (ask what you need to know, not just what is nice to know).
  • Close-ended rather than open-ended questions (less time and thought).
  • Completing surveys in person or administered surveys.
  • Greater credibility of, loyalty for, or familiarity with the organization.
  • Participant interest in the survey goals or outcomes (e.g. offer a copy of the final results as an incentive).
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