Insights professionals face challenges recruiting individuals to take surveys. Consumers are inundated with a constant barrage of marketing messages and insight professionals compete for their attention. This has become particularly pronounced in the last decade, where survey participation rates have been steadily declining with fewer people willing to take them1.

Declining response rates are obviously a cause for concern: the more difficult it is to recruit people to take a survey, the more time, energy and cost involved. Non-response errors occur when the people that do take surveys differ from the people that refuse. This combined with diminishing response rates can bias the survey data and give the researcher an incomplete picture of the population.

How can we address this problem and improve response rates to our surveys? In this paper, I will discuss a handful of techniques that can be used to help engage and encourage survey participation. I’ll address the e-mail invite, reminders, incentives and survey design. While by no means an exhaustive list, these are simple and effective techniques that should be a part of every survey-based research project.

1. E-mail invite

The e-mail invite is the first point of contact, so this is a crucial area for recruiting respondents. Nothing improves survey response rates more than when an e-mail recipient recognizes and trusts the name of the sender.

Although you cannot control who the online survey sponsor is, you can take care to draw attention to the survey sponsor and/or to your relationship with the respondent when it is advantageous to do so. One of the easiest ways to do this is through the survey invite. Online survey invites should be carefully constructed, personalized and, if possible, branded. Corporate logos, professional stylings or even personable language can be used to establish a connection between the recipient and drive traffic to your survey. Since the invite is the first point of contact with your respondent, it is the gateway to your survey. Done well, it can show the recipient that you value their time. Conversely, a sloppy invite conveys the message that you don’t care, so why should they?

Figure 1: A poor e-mail invite can lead to fewer respondents completing your online survey. 

Figure 2: A well-designed invite is concise and professional. 

2. Reminders

Reminders are an easy and effective way to increase response rates for online surveys. After you’ve crafted and deployed your initial e-mail invite, a follow-up e-mail should always be sent out to contacts that have not taken the survey yet. This serves as a helpful reminder to people and places your e-mail invite back to the top of their inbox if it was missed the first time around. A simple reminder or two can double response rates. Figure 3 shows part of a field report that illustrates the daily number of qualified completes for an online survey. An e-mail campaign for this study launched on Oct. 4, resulting in a rush of completed interviews. A reminder was sent out on Oct. 11, which further increased the number of completes. This pattern is typical of most studies. Almost all the respondents that engage with a survey will do so within the first three days of receiving an e-mail invite or reminder. If a respondent doesn’t fill out your survey after the initial invite, the reminder e-mail is the second-chance opportunity to have them do so.

Figure 3: Number of daily completes for an online survey.

3. Incentives

There may be situations where you anticipate difficulty recruiting respondents to your online survey and simply putting together a well-crafted invite or e-mail reminders may not be sufficient. In such cases, consider an incentive. An incentive is a reward provided in exchange for completing a survey.

Generally, there are two different types of incentives: monetary and non-monetary. A monetary incentive can include gift cards, cash, pre-paid credit cards, coupons, etc. A non-monetary incentive can be many things such as access to an industry report, a vacation giveaway or a sweepstakes to win an iPad.

For a cash incentive, $5 is a good starting point as a cash incentive on a consumer survey, while $10 would be the starting point for a B2B study. Your incentive may be more or less depending on the particulars of your survey and audience.

It’s impossible to predict with certainty exactly how much your incentive will boost survey participation. There are many factors that affect survey response rates. Poor survey wording, long grids, a boring survey topic or even asking too many sensitive questions may hamper your efforts to field a survey. Generally, though, incentives can have a positive impact and draw people to your survey, whether it be a monetary reward or non-monetary reward.

4. Interactive questions

A well-designed survey is important for engaging with a respondent and providing a user-friendly survey-taking experience. Interactive questions are one way to enhance your survey design to provide a more engaging and user-friendly survey experience. Using HTML5 and JavaScript technology, customized and graphical survey forms can be created to provide a more dynamic survey environment.

Figure 4: Slider and rank sort are examples of interactive questions. These provide a graphical and interactive way to capture respondent data in online surveys.

Interactive questions are especially important in today’s mobile world. Traditional radio button designs may be too small for mobile device screens, whereas an interactive “card sort” employs big buttons to provide a more mobile-friendly format over standard grid-formatted question types (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Interactive questions can enhance participation rates for mobile users with enlarged touch input areas and dynamic visual effects.

5. Question wording

Questionnaire writing is one of the most fundamental parts of survey research. The answers and insights you get from your survey are only as good as the questions you ask. A poorly worded question may confuse the respondent and fail to accurately capture their opinions. Good question wording can improve survey enjoyment and participation. Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing questions:

1. Avoid unnecessary wording. Don’t make the respondent read more than they have to.

Example: Now please think about your role models. It may help to think of individuals that achieved things you admire or mentors you’ve learned from. Using the following scale, indicate which characteristics describe the role models you’ve had in life.

Consider whether scene-setting is necessary for your question. Often, it can be simplified:

What characteristics describe the role models in your life?

2. Avoid leading the respondent. These are phrases that encourage respondents to answer a certain way. This leads to poor data quality since you’ve biased the respondent answers.

Example: Do you believe education is important for the future health of the country?

The way this question is asked, the only logical answer is to agree.

Instead you may ask: What do you see as the most important issue facing the future health of the country?

  • Education
  • Health care
  • The budget deficit
  • Other

3. Seek to be understood. Avoid using technical jargon or “marketing speak.”

Example: On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 means “completely dissatisfied” and 5 means “completely satisfied,” how would you rate your hotel experience?

Plain English: How satisfied were you with your hotel experience?

Example: At which of the following stores or Web sites did you actually shop for clothing for your most recent purchase?

Plain English: The last time you bought clothes, where did you buy them?

Respondents will spend the most time in a survey reading your questions and answer options. It pays then for you, the researcher, to spend the most time considering how these are written. You not only want to capture accurate data but also provide a clear and friendly survey experience for your respondents.

Better surveys mean better insights

Invites, reminders, incentives and ensuring survey usability are all routine parts of conducting survey research. Improving response rates is often about executing and presenting well to our respondents. Although the purpose of a survey may be to help address and investigate key business questions, consider the purpose and motivation the respondent has for completing your survey. They may do so for financial reasons or for altruistic reasons – they may want to help you or perhaps they feel their voice can have an impact and you will value their opinion. Surveys are a touchpoint for you to engage in dialogue with customers and create a positive brand experience. Therefore, a smooth and engaging survey experience, from professionally branded invites to user-friendly questions, doesn’t just maximize survey response rates but better surveys mean better insights and a more positive customer engagement with your brand.

For more information on getting better insights from your surveys, visit us at where you’ll find “The Definitive Guide to Effective Online Surveys.”


Miller, Peter (2017). “Is there a future for surveys?” Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 81, Special Issue, 2017, pp. 205–212.


Aaron Jue is market research director, FocusVision.