4 Ways to Improve Survey Response Rates

Good data starts with good surveys. These 4 tactics help boost your survey response rates, yielding better customer insights one question at a time.


Chris Boeckelman

August 15, 2016

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Surveys help you understand your customers, refine your products, and improve your business. So when you take the time to design and distribute an important survey, it’s frustrating when response trickle in slowly.

So how can you improve online survey response rates and get the most out of your data?

There are many reasons your survey response rate may be lower than you’d like, but taking a second look at the survey’s design, deliverability (via email), relevance, and accessibility across devices can shed some light on what’s missing.

Below we examine how these four elements can be fine-tuned to improve online survey response rates.

4 Keys to Boosting Survey Response Rates

1. Focus on survey design.

Just like the rest of the content you distribute, your survey design should mirror your brand, presenting a polished, professional image to the public. But beyond that, its design should encourage the respondent to move onto the next question.

Consider survey length.

Research from Nielsen shows that online users are constantly skimming content—not reading word for word. To conform, your survey should be short, concise, and easy to navigate. Fewer than 10 questions is ideal. By limiting your questions, you’ll harness short attention spans.

Design wisely.

In the study Internet, Mail, and Mixed-Mode Surveys, researcher Don Dillman found that specific design tactics were more effective than others at improving survey response rates. The findings from this study recommend several survey design optimizations:

  • Ask one question at a time

  • Minimize the use of matrices

  • Place questions in the upper left quadrant of a screen

  • Use large, bright symbols to indicate the starting point on each screen

  • Number survey questions

  • Leverage whitespace between questions

  • Use bold text treatment for questions and light text treatment for answers

  • Keep answer spaces consistent throughout the survey

  • Align question subcomponents vertically

  • Use shorter text lines to prevent readers from skipping over words

These design tweaks are proven to work, too. Following these recommendations, the Journal of Extension boosted email survey response rates from 62% to 79%.

Bottom line: An effective online survey is simple, clean, and easy to navigate.

2. Prioritize email deliverability.

Survey distribution is just as important as content. The last place you want your survey going is the spam folder. Know your CAN-SPAM compliance guidelines, then follow some best practices for email deliverability, like the following.

Never use purchased lists.

Purchased lists not only violate CAN-SPAM regulations, but they’re a recipe for high abuse reports. If you’re flagged as a repeat offender, your email service provider will likely suspend your account.

Use a real reply address.

Email addresses like noreply@yourbiz.com are a red flag for inbox spam filters. Make sure the reply-to email address for your survey is a real account.

Have a ‘From’ name recipients will recognize.

Instead of using your business name in the ‘From’ line, try an employee’s name. This personal touch makes the request more appealing—like it’s an exclusive invitation to respond.

You should also consider the privacy and confidentiality recommendations from the Electronic Survey Methodology: A Case Study in Reaching Hard-to-Involve Internet Users. The study’s suggestions can help build further trust with survey recipients.

Bottom line: When it comes to deliverability, your goal is to ensure your email survey reaches as many inboxes as possible. Take steps to ensure your messages stay out of the spam folder.

3. Be relevant.

Researchers Bean and Roszkowski found that relevance had more influence on survey response rates than other factors, like monetary incentives or survey length. “If a person attaches little interest or importance to the particular content of a survey, then it will not matter if the survey form is short; the person still is unlikely to respond,” the researchers reported.

Segment email lists.

This means list segmentation is extremely important. Say you’re a large retailer that wants to improve survey response rates on products. You wouldn’t ask a customer who purchased a flashlight about their experience with your cosmetics products, right? Keep separate, segmented email lists based on customer demographics, buying habits, and frequency of purchase.

State your purpose.

Use the email and the title page of the survey to explain why you’re sending it and what you plan to do with the results. If the goal of the survey is to improve your products through customer feedback, people may be more inclined to respond since they’ll benefit too.

Personalize your survey email.

Social and behavioral science studies show that when survey respondents see their names in print, it gives them a reason to pause. Starting email requests with the receiver’s name adds a human touch that could up the odds they respond. In fact, research from Campaign Monitor suggests that personalization in emails can increase open rates by as much as 26%, so it’s important to include the receiver’s first name whenever possible (both in the subject line and the message body).

Bottom line: Highly relevant, personalized framing is proven to increase survey response rates. Segment your email lists and use participants’ first names in survey email subject lines to up relevance.

4. Send mobile-friendly surveys.

optimize for mobile to improve survey response rates

If your online survey isn’t mobile-friendly, odds are you’re losing participants. Over 50% of surveys are opened on mobile devices, so your surveys need to render well on any device—and within any browser.

It’s important to go with a provider that offers mobile surveys and mobile-friendly templates, but you shouldn’t stop there. If you’re sending your survey via email, remember that your email template needs to be mobile-friendly too. Email opens on mobile grew by 30% in 2015, and a mobile-optimized format is chief among consumer preferences.

Bottom line: Your online survey needs to be mobile-friendly, and so does the way you share it.


Making a few adjustments to your survey design, deliverability, relevance, and accessibility across devices can help improve your survey response rates in a big way. Consider gathering feedback from participants who’ve completed your survey to see how you can improve.

Yes, that means conducting a survey about your survey. It may sound silly, but it can be extremely beneficial in the long-run. Keep fine-tuning and you’ll gain more actionable insights from your surveys over time.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in February 2016. It’s been updated for accuracy and freshness.

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