At RMS, we are frequently asked by our clients what kind of response rate they can expect from their survey research, or after the fact, if the survey response they did receive was “good.” Usually, the most honest answer we can give to those questions is “It depends.” The truth is that survey response rates are devilishly hard to predict, because so many factors can impact them.

But at the same time, coming up with a reasonably close estimate of response rates going into a project is very important. It can impact issues like budget, project timeline and the upfront consideration of whether or not incentives will be offered. We would love to have a crystal ball or secret formula that allowed us to predict response rates with new projects, but we don’t. We do, however, have years of experience that gives us a general idea about how various factors will tend to improve or hinder our response rates.

If you are thinking about conducting survey research, here are seven questions you can ask yourself going into the project that will help you get a feel for any response rate challenges you might face. Knowing the answers to these questions upfront and planning accordingly can help you save money, create a realistic schedule and manage expectations.  

1. What is the nature of your organization?

In our experience at RMS, some types of clients have built-in advantages over others when it comes to survey response rates. Companies that are well-established and possess a high level of brand equity, and not-for-profits – especially well-known ones – will tend to enjoy higher response rates than lesser known companies. People are simply more comfortable providing data to organizations they recognize and feel they can trust. In this age of telephone and internet scams, many people are immediately suspicious of an organization they’ve never heard of contacting them to solicit information. If your organization is not well-known in the area you are surveying, there’s not much you can do to change that, but it is something you need to be cognizant of going in so you can have realistic expectations.

2. Do you have an existing relationship with the survey audience?

As a general rule, established customers of a company or members of an organization will be more inclined to respond to a survey than non-customers or non-members. Some of the highest response rates we have seen for surveys at RMS have been college surveys conducted among current students of the institutions. This, despite the fact that the 18 to 24 age group is notoriously hard to reach and engage for survey research. The reason was that the students were people who had a very comprehensive and deep relationship with the institution conducting the research. One caveat with this point is that organizations sometimes overestimate the strength of the relationship they have with customers/members. You can’t always assume that members of an organization will feel a strong connection. In fact, a survey among established customers or members that winds up with a low response rate is often a finding in itself.

3. How much of an obvious stake does the survey audience have in the subject at hand?

I use the qualifier “obvious” here because it might seem readily apparent to you that consumers have a vested interest in contributing to research that will enhance your delivery of products or services to them, but the consumer may not see (or believe) that connection. I know, in theory, that answering a follow-up survey about my experience at a car dealership might lead to better service next time I go to buy a car, but that’s not going to do much to motivate me to actually complete the survey. On the other hand, some survey audiences will immediately understand that their feedback could have a direct impact on issues that affect them. An example of the latter might be a school district survey that asked members of the community how they felt about closing a certain school building. That type of issue would generate strong feelings in the community and many people would be highly motivated to weigh in with their opinions. Answering this question requires you to put your normal assumptions aside and think like your survey audience for a bit (always a good practice, by the way). Ask yourself if you would honestly care about the questions being asked if you were in their shoes.

4. Are you going to let the survey audience know who is conducting the research or will it be blinded?

There are a few good reasons to withhold the identity of the organization conducting some sorts of research. For example, a competitive brand equity study could be tainted if respondents knew who was asking the questions.  That said, our recommendation to clients is that unless there’s a very compelling reason to blind the survey, they should avoid doing so. Most of that advice is tied to response rates. People are much less likely to respond to a blinded survey, for reasons already discussed in previous points. Public trust with surveys is low and anything anonymous will make them even more suspicious than normal. People prefer to put a name to someone they’re interacting with. When at all possible, you should let them know yours.

5. Will seasonality be a factor?

There are a few general rules of thumb about survey seasonality. For one thing, it’s often harder to reach potential respondents in the summer months because so many people go away on vacation. The last month and a half of the calendar year can also be problematic because of the holidays and all the activities surrounding them. Beyond that, seasonality is largely specific to the type of research you’re doing and who you’re trying to reach. Early April would be a bad time to attempt to survey tax accountants. School district surveys will get better response rates during the school year. The summer months might be a great time to survey consumers about lawn care products. There are many factors to be considered, but the basic considerations are weighing the availability of the survey audience at a specific time of the year and the extent to which they might be actively thinking about the subject at hand.

6. Could respondent confidentiality be a concern?

In some cases, people will be skittish about responding to a survey because they fear that their responses will be tied back to them and result in negative consequences. A classic example of this is an employee satisfaction survey, where employees will be nervous about offering frank criticism of top managers or an immediate supervisor. To some extent, this can be alleviated by using a third-party to conduct the research and with assurances that the results will only be reported in the aggregate. But, in those delicate situations, you should know going in that there is a larger than normal segment of the survey audience who simply won’t participate, no matter what.

7. If it’s a telephone survey, will experienced callers be used?

Telephone surveyors are not a commodity. Those who are experienced and know how to do it well will be much more successful than inexperienced callers who sound unpolished or tentative on the phone. To some extent, that ability is a function of personality, but it’s also largely the result of training and experience. The best way to make sure that a telephone survey is being administered properly, and the approach of the callers is maximizing your response rate, is to use a research firm with an established call center.