Survey Response Rates

Survey Response Rates

In the following module, survey response rates and ways to increase them will be discussed.

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss common rates of response for different surveys
  • Identify and explain factors that influence response rates
  • Explain ways to increase survey response rates


The following Slideshare presentation, Tips for Improving Response Rates and Surveying Techniques, introduces the concept of a response rate, how it is calculated, and its importance in survey research. It also offers tips on ways to maximize the response rate of a survey and increase the credibility of the results.


The response rate of a survey is very important to the credibility of the research results. A low response rate may decrease the statistical power of the data collected and undermine the reliability of the results. It may also undermine the ability of the researcher to generalize the results to the larger target audience. This is further complicated by the fact that a low response rate can be indicative of a nonresponse bias within the sample.

Given the importance of the response rate, researchers will likely wonder, “What is a typical response rate? What should I expect for a return rate?”. There have been many studies done regarding survey response rates and the results are incredibly varied.   In general, the following response rates are common:   Employee Surveys – 60-90%; Customer and Member Surveys – 5- 40%; General Public – 1-20%. However, these percentages are simply a guideline. The rate of a response for any particular survey may depend greatly on the availability and reachability of the target audience and knowing the best way to deliver a survey to that audience. Response rates may also depend on the sensitivity of the topic in the survey as well.

Considering the importance of the response rate to the research results and the high variability of responses, researchers should spend time and effort examining ways to increase the response rate for his or her survey. In the book, Mail and Internet Surveys – The Tailored Design Method by Don Dillman, three issues are discussed that impact response rates.

  • Increasing the Reward – There are many ways to make responding to a survey a more rewarding experience for the respondent. Begin by providing the respondents with clear instructions, the purpose of the survey and an engaging introduction. Stressing that their help and/or advice is needed may appeal to their desire to help others. In that regard, it is also critical to be positive, polite and show respect. Incentives are another way to reward respondents in a more tangible way. This can be done in many ways including cash, gift cards, being entered in a lottery or drawing, prizes, and other tokens of appreciation.
  • Decreasing Cost and Time – The biggest “cost” to respondents is the time it takes to complete the survey. It is important that the survey be relatively short and concise and that the instruction be very clear. If respondents get bogged down and the survey is long or difficult to complete, they may simply not finish it. It is also important to ensure that ethical standards are adhered to and that confidentiality is maintained so there is no harm or “cost” to the respondents in that manner.
  • Establishing Trust – Respondents need to know that the purpose of the survey is genuine and that the results will be used in the manner described in the introduction. Many respondents will also feel more inclined to respond if the results of the survey will be shared with them in some way. It is also critical to follow up on any promised rewards or incentives.

Following is a list of specific tips for increasing survey rates and ensuring that that the three goals above are met:

  • Personalize the invitation to respond. People respond at higher rate when they feel that they are personally being asked to participate.
  • Engage the respondents with an interesting introduction that clearly describes the purpose of the survey. Do not, however, let the introduction get too lengthy.
  • Provide very clear and concise instructions for answering the survey. Make it as easy as possible for respondents and minimize their effort. Do not require respondents to jump through any hoops.
  • Explain how privacy and confidentiality will be addressed.
  • Ensure that the survey type is appropriate for the audience. For example, if many elderly people are in the sample, an internet survey may not be appropriate.
  • Keep the survey short. Follow the guidelines in the previous module about writing clear survey questions and having appropriate response choices.
  • Be honest about the amount of time it will take to complete it.
  • If using incentives, immediate rewards have been shown to have the most impact on response rates. For example, sending every member of the sample a token of appreciation, gift card, or cash reward will encourage them to respond out of a sense to give something for what they have received. The offer to be entered into a drawing or some type of lottery is less motivating. However, cost of rewards or incentives does have to be taken into consideration and may not feasible.
  • Send one reminder or follow up to the sample to encourage them to respond.


Suggested Readings

Aday, L. A., & Cornelius, L. J. (2011). Designing and conducting health surveys: a comprehensive guide. John Wiley & Sons.
Blair, J., Czaja, R. F., & Blair, E. A. (2013). Designing surveys: A guide to decisions and procedures. Sage Publications.
Church, A. H. (1993). Estimating the effect of incentives on mail survey response rates: A meta-analysis. Public Opinion Quarterly, 57(1), 62-79.
Dillman, D. A. (2011). Mail and Internet surveys: The tailored design method--2007
Update with new Internet, visual, and mixed-mode guide. John Wiley & Sons.
Fowler Jr, F. J. (2013). Survey research methods. Sage publications.
Kaplowitz, M. D., Hadlock, T. D., & Levine, R. (2004). A comparison of web and mail survey response rates. Public opinion quarterly, 68(1), 94-101.
Millar, M. M., & Dillman, D. A. (2011). Improving response to web and mixed-mode surveys.Public Opinion Quarterly, nfr003.
Sheehan, K. B. (2001). E‐mail survey response rates: A review. Journal of ComputerMediated Communication, 6(2), 0-0.
Thomas, S. J. (1999). Designing Surveys That Work! A Step-by-Step Guide. Corwin Press, Inc

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