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With response rates for online surveys plummeting to less than 15% in most cases we outline 10 practical ways to increase response rates for online surveys.

1. Shorter surveys delivered more often

Many companies choose to conduct research with their customers or employees once a year. These surveys tend to be all-encompassing documents jumping from one topic to the next. I have seen surveys with 50-100 questions which can take respondents over 30 minutes to complete, so it is no wonder respondent fatigue kicks in and drop-out rates soar.

Shorter surveys asking 5-10 killer questions are more likely to deliver considered responses from participants. They are less likely to drop out and more likely to write meaningful comments in open-text boxes which can be used to maximise insight.

Shorter surveys should be topic-specific. For example asking customers about your latest product idea or marketing campaign. This approach allows you to conduct more agile market research. Surveys can be developed quickly and the results can be disseminated to key decision makers on one page of A4.

TIP: If you already have some respondent information on file don’t ask those questions in the survey. Most survey systems can integrate respondent data during the invitation process. This typically includes demographic and purchasing information which can be cross-referenced with survey responses in the analysis stage.

2. Smart questionnaire design

If you ever look at a fall-out report from an online survey you will see most respondents drop out when confronted by a matrix grid style question. These questions typically ask respondents to rate their opinion of various attributes on a likert scale. The trouble is that these types of questions have become very useful to analysts and also deliver great sound bites i.e. '75% of our customers agree our product is value for money'.

Try using a variety of question types to ask this type of question. This might include drag and drop options to assign importance or sliders which can quickly by dragged from right to left.

TIP: If you are sending your survey to a large sample use branching to reduce the questionnaire length. If you want respondents to agree/disagree with 10 statements show half to one section of respondents and the other half to the remaining respondents. A large sample will mean the results are still statistically robust and your response rates are likely to be higher.

3. Multi-platform

There is no one size fits all approach for distributing surveys. Most companies have a wide variety of customers who all have their own individual preferences. If the goal is to get as many responses as possible consider distributing the survey via a variety of channels.

These channels include an online survey link in an email, an announcement via social media, SMS text message via mobile phone, a link on the bottom of a receipt or a paper version sent out in the post.

Be careful mixing telephone or face to face surveys with online or paper surveys as questioning techniques can deliver varied results.

TIP: Before designing your questionnaire consider the most appropriate distribution channels. Your question techniques may need to be adapted depending on whether the survey will be distribute online, mobile, over the phone or on paper.

4. Insight-based incentives

Most companies will realise that to increase response rates for online surveys they need to offer some sort of incentive. These are typically not given much thought and end up being the usual Amazon voucher or iPad.

One way to increase response rates is to offer more ingenious incentives. These do not need to cost any more than your usual incentives but will motivate respondents to click on the link and start the survey.

Insight-based incentives offer different prizes to different groups of respondents. For example, females may prefer the chance to win a spa weekend, whilst males may prefer a track day. Younger respondents may prefer an Apple voucher whilst older respondents may be more motivated by high street gift vouchers.

This principle also applies when conducting B2C and B2B online surveys. Whilst consumers are not bound by any restrictions businesses may have policies on receiving gifts. So why not offer a free catered lunch for up to 20 employees or a donation to the charity of their choice for B2B respondents.

TIP: If you need responses fast offer an incentive to the first 25 respondents to complete the survey.

5. Pre-communication publicity

A great way to increase response rates is to create a buzz and a sense of anticipation around your survey. ‘Coming soon’ messages can be publicised through social media, via your website, on receipts/invoices or posters. For employee surveys an announcement from the CEO or MD will give your survey added importance.

TIP: Think of creative ways to give your survey a brand identity. This might include a name, logo or email address so people can find out more about it or send in ideas prior to launch.

6. Timing is everything

Many people believe response rates tend to be lower over the holidays and at weekends. The safe bet would be to launch your survey mid-week in a month with little distractions. However sites like Facebook tend to be at their busiest during these times as people have extra downtime to surf online.

Depending on your target respondent it is worth testing the launch of your survey at a variety of different times during the week. You may find launching your survey on a Sunday evening delivers significantly higher response rates than on a Tuesday lunchtime.

TIP: Send at least one reminder during the fieldwork period. This is usually sent a week after the initial survey communication is sent out. Response rates tend to peak on launch and after reminders.

7. Make it personal

Try to include the respondent's name in any survey communications. Research shows that personalised emails are more likely to be read. You could even include the respondents name in the email subject e.g. ‘Hi Tom, we would really like your feedback on our new product idea’.

Also try to merge in any personal or behavioural information you know about the respondent as part of the survey. This will make them feel like you know them as a person and a valued customer e.g. ‘We saw that you recently purchased a pair of Levi jeans from our website. Can you please tell us about that experience?’

TIP: Linking in actual information about the customer with their responses in the survey is an extremely powerful tool. Decision-makers are more likely to take notice if your biggest spending customers have a bad experience.

8. Accountability (employee surveys)

This is probably more relevant for surveys distributed to employees. Employee engagement surveys tend to get higher response rates than customer surveys. However, despite the captive audience, many employee surveys achieve response rates of less than 50%.

Much of this is related to the involvement of the senior management team and in particular departmental directors. Those who value employee feedback will encourage their team to fill the survey in promptly and honestly. Those who dismiss research or who are scared of the results will be less motivated to encourage their team to fill it in.

It is important to make departmental directors accountable for their own department's response rate. This should include setting minimum benchmarks of at least 75% and offering prizes for the departments with the highest response rates.

TIP: To fully engage departmental directors involve them in the project from the start. Ask for their ideas about the type of questions that should be asked. Allow them to express their concerns and inform them how the results will help improve their performance.

9. Communicating the results back to respondents

Polls on social media websites like Facebook receive thousands of responses. This is partly because they are quick and easy to complete. However, respondents are also given the option to see the results. Most customer surveys do not allow respondents the opportunity to see how others responded.

At the end of the survey consider including some key charts on the closing page and inviting respondents to make any final comments about the overall results.

TIP: Also summarise the results in your next newsletter, thanking respondents for taking part and telling them what action will be taken based on their feedback.

10. Act on the results

If your customers can see your organisation improving and evolving on the back of research they will be more likely to offer feedback in the future. This means customer research needs to be at the heart of decision making. Often survey results provide useful information but the results are not acted on. This only serves to disengage customers who might look to do business with a more customer-centric organisation in the future.

TIP: If respondents are particular dissatisfied or have had a bad experience offer to follow up with them to resolve their issue.