3 small changes that will pay huge dividends in your survey response rates

Get better survey responses with 3 smart changes

It's so easy to throw together a survey these days.  It's easy to make a google form, slap a few questions in there and survey the heck out of anyone with an email address.  But just because it's easy to make a survey, doesn't mean it's easy to get responses that you can actually use. 

A few years back I was asked to send out a survey to all of the high school counselors in Chicago, by the end of the day.  "It will be easy!" my boss said as she gave me last year's survey and walked away.  But last year's survey was a flop.  We didn't get many responses, and the data we did have felt pretty meaningless.   I knew the survey could be better, but I didn't have a lot of time.  I had to be smart with my time, so I focused on the changes that would get me responses that I could actually use.  If you need to get more out of a survey that is already in use, or if you've got the time to start from scratch, use these 3 tips to make your survey smarter.

1. Simplify

Write your questions as if you were talking directly to the person answering them and keep it short.  Each additional word in your question has a negative effect on completion rates. (See this research from Survey Monkey for the actual study.) In other words, if the question feels complicated, the reader might just quit on the spot.

This question is wordy and awkward:

From 10 to 7 words, this question is now a lot cleaner:

And start with an easy question! Survey Monkey has done some research on this too--surveys that open with a friendly, easy-to-answer multiple choice question had a 6% higher completion rate than surveys that start with an open-ended question.

2. Ditch Agree/Disagree Questions

Be as direct as possible. Questions that ask the reader to pick a level of agreement are way more vulnerable to bias.  Most of us like being agreeable so we are more likely to pick variations of “agree” responses.  It’s called acquiescence response bias, and it’s a real thing that taints survey results over and over again.  (Check out this article from the Sociological Methodology Journal for the nitty gritty details.)

This question is begging (your subconscious) to be agreeable:

Ask a more direct question:

3. Get rid of numbered scales

Ask a real question and give real descriptive responses.  We don’t think in terms of numbered scales, so it is harder to answer questions that ask us to select a number that corresponds to how strongly we feel about something.  The people responding to your survey are doing you a favor and you should make it easy for them to tell you exactly what they think.

So many numbers:

Turn those numbers into descriptive responses:

Don't make your survey reader do the dirty work of trying to understand what you are really trying to ask.  Keep your surveys simple and direct.  You will be rewarded with happy survey takers and meaningful data.