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The single most important factor in determining response rates for surveys is the nature of the relationship that you have with the people you are asking to complete the survey.  As people get inundated with more and more surveys, they are becoming more discerning in deciding which surveys to complete and which to ignore.  Surveys get better response rates if you:
  • Have a close relationship with the people that you are surveying.
  • Guarantee the confidentiality of responses.
  • Use compelling survey announcement and invitation messages.
  • Present the survey in the respondent's native language.
  • Give your respondents feedback on what you learned and the changes you are making in response to the findings.
  • Provide incentives for completing the survey (e.g., entry in a sweepstakes).
Employee surveys tend to get the highest response rates.  Often, it is possible to get response rates in the range of 75% - 85% completion for employee surveys.  This is because your closest relationships tend to be with your own employees.  For workgroup and manager feedback surveys, such as 180o and 360o degree feedback surveys, response rates will be high only if members of workgroups or direct reports are given ongoing feedback on the response rate as the survey progresses.

First Customer surveys (wholesalers, dealers, or distributors) often have survey response rates in the 45% - 55% range.   First Customers have close relationships with their suppliers and the closer the relationship is, the better the survey response rate will tend to be.

Help Desk surveys for important internal functions also tend to have response rates of around 50%. 

Large customer surveys have higher response rates than small customer (e.g., retail consumer) surveys.  Customers that invest large amounts of money on products and ongoing services (as in the IT industry) will typically have response rates in the 20% - 30% range.  Smaller consumer surveys (e.g., retail customers) will tend to have lower response rates.  The actual rate obtained will depend in part on the method of recruiting participants.  E-mail survey invitations  for example, will fare better than surveys for which the link to the survey is printed on a customer's receipt or appears as a pop-up on your website.  If you have large numbers of retail customers (or website visitors), then the low response rates for these types of approaches can be countered by the sheer number of potential invitees. 

Customer and Technical Support surveys tend to have modest response rates, typically in the range of 10% - 15%.  However, these response rates can be maximized  by including an incentive, such as a sweepstakes entry, and the large number of issues that most companies close can result in robust data sets even when response rates are not high.

We have conducted randomized trials at GuideStar Research of the impact of incentives.  In a study of more than 6,000 survey invitees, for example, we compared four conditions:   (1) no incentive; (2) an unspecified donation to charity for each survey completed; (3) a $1 donation to charity for each survey completed; (3) a sweepstakes for a high tech prize (this particular study used a flash memory key, which was popular at the time); and, (4) a sweepstakes for a Mont Blanc pen.  The winner?  Mont Blanc pens increased response rates by 1/3.  We replicated this finding in a second study and now use Mont Blanc pens as one of our more common incentives.  Even if people already have one, they make nice gifts!  Other research groups have conducted similar studies with comparable findings.  Paying each respondent (generally now $5 each or a gift certificate) also works well, but this is more expensive.

Focus Group participation requires either a close working relationship with the people you seek to include, substantive monetary compensation, or both.  Generally, if there is a close relationship with the customers and the groups are convenient for them, then a personal invitation from Account Managers or other suitable staff in your organization will prompt participation.  If this is not possible, then you may need to pay participants.  For those in high demand groups (e.g., CIO's, physicians) the rates required can be  high.

Structured or semi-structured telephone interviews can be easier to arrange and to recruit for than focus groups as they are more convenient (in time and place) for potential participants.  When the nature of the research does not require that you have group discussions or need to make audio-visual presentations, then these can be a very effective alternative for qualitative research with high demand groups.
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