What is a typical survey response rate?

Overview

From a statistical standpoint, the response rate is critical, but perhaps of more importance is the potential for non-response bias.

In short, there is no typical response rate. The response rate will vary based on:

  • Complexity of interview,
  • Level of responsibility of the respondent,
  • Method of data collection,
  • Amount and intensity of follow-up,
  • Survey subject,
  • Use of an incentive,
  • Whether or not the survey sponsor can be revealed,
  • Sensitivity or proprietary nature of questions, and
  • many other factors.

For a web-based survey to a mass audience, with no identification of the survey sponsor, using no incentive, and on a subject that is of relatively low importance to the respondent, a response rate well under 10% would be expected. On the other hand, for a carefully worded survey of customers where the sponsor was identified and non-respondents were followed-up in a professional and respectful manner, a response rate of 75% would not be unusual.

From a statistical standpoint, the response rate is critical, but perhaps of more importance is the potential for non-response bias. This is the potential that non-respondents differ in a systematic way from respondents. For example, if potential customers in a target market are being surveyed about their interest in a new product, and individuals who were satisfied with their current vendor were less likely to respond, results of the survey would indicate a more favorable market potential than would actually exist.

Careful consideration to response rate and non-response bias is important to ensure that results are statistically valid and actionable.

What can I do to improve response rate?

There are a few proven methods to improve response rates.  The most common is offering an individual a monetary incentive or honorarium for their participation.  The amount of the honorarium is usually driven by the the length of the survey, and title of the respondent you are want to attract. This method is usually fairly effective, but can be very costly depending on the audience; in many cases the total honorarium fees may be the most expensive line item in the survey budget.  Another issue is often business executives are not allowed to accept incentives. However, a great option if you run into this is to offer a donation to a charity in their name; we have been very successful with this approach.

There are also methods to improve response rates that avoid the high cost of incentives. The basis for all of these is to take a "quid pro quo" approach, providing something of perceived value in return for their participation.  Options for this "quid pro quo" approach may include:

  • Offering a summary report of the finding of the survey - If the survey topic is of interest to the participants, this is an excellent option.  It allows you to control the content of the summary report, potentially providing some interesting content, but not giving away the findings of the survey.
  • Positioning the survey as potentially beneficial to the participant - When introducing the survey provide a benefit for participating, such as:
    • "We are representing a potential new supplier, looking at entering the market" - this implies that participation may lead to a new market entrant, which may increase competition and lower prices
    • "Our client is looking to improve performance based on your input" - You have direct input into a suppliers improvement efforts, there is certainly no downside in participating. 

The other method that drives increased response rates is to have your send out an introductory letter explaining the survey, its purpose, and its importance.  Then, provide multiple ways to complete the survey; on-line, hard copy, or telephone. Providing multiple ways to complete the survey increases participation rates. Why? Some individuals may take a paper copy with them on a business trip, others may take the survey at lunch electronically on their phone, and others may just prefer to talk on the phone.  The key is providing them the option that fits them.

Over our 26 years on conducting B2B market research surveys our average response rate is approximately 65%, and we offer incentives on less than 5% of our survey projects...keeping cost down while achieving the quality associated with high response rates.

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