Administration Matters: Getting Optimal Survey Results

By Patricia Steele
HigherEd Insight

How you administer your survey is just as important as its design. (For more information on survey design, see this earlier blog post). Proper administration techniques will help you to get a better response rate.

You need a good response rate to know that your data are reliable and to be able to report your data to stakeholders with confidence. A response rate of at least 50 percent for paper surveys is desirable; 20-25 percent is considered reasonable for web-based surveys.

Hot Tips and Engaging Examples

Communicate with respondents. Contact respondents before administering the survey to give them an overview of what will be asked, tell them when (and in what format) the survey will be available, and invite them to ask questions. The Southern Regional Education Board’s High Schools that Work survey administration directions provide some examples of how to communicate with respondents.

Keep it personal. Personalize your survey invitation with respondents’ names and, if appropriate, organizations to increase the chances that people will respond. Both SurveyMonkey and Zoomerang allow you to enter respondent information so that each invitation is personalized (to use this feature, you must state that you have permission to use respondents’ email addresses). If you are doing paper surveys, you can use personalized labels to accomplish this task. Be sure that your survey instructions tell respondents that their answers are confidential and you are using their names just to track response rates, not for analysis and reporting.

Online vs. Paper: Paper surveys are great when you will have all or most respondents gathered in one physical location, such as conferences, meetings, orientations, or classes. Reserve time at a specific point in the meeting for respondents to complete the survey.

On the other hand online surveys have their own advantages. They are inexpensive and easy for people to complete. In addition, your data are automatically entered as people complete the surveys, making it less time consuming, less expensive, and easier for you to analyze the data. This also allows you to look at data throughout the survey to see how your data are trending.

If you do opt to do a paper survey, you can then enter each completed survey into an online survey site. This allows you an easy way to create and analyze an electronic data set; it also allows errors to be introduced in data entry, so reviewing the data entered to make sure they are accurate is an important step. For further discussion of tools for electronic surveys, please see this previous Evaluation Corner blog post.

Tell people about the survey’s purpose and importance. Preface your survey with a short note introduction for respondents. Tell them:

  • Who you/your organization are
  • The purpose and importance of the survey
  • How the results will benefit them
  • How much their thoughts matter
  • If the survey is confidential or not
  • Whom to contact with questions about the survey
  • What incentives you are offering for survey completion, if any

You may be surprised how eager respondents are to receive a small token of appreciation. Consider offering a $5 gift card to a coffee shop, a movie ticket, an entry in a drawing for a larger gift card, a pizza party, cookies, or even a pen or pencil. SurveyMonkey has a feature to help build your incentives right into your survey.

The following provides an example of a strong survey preface:

Please complete the following brief survey for East County Employment Trainers to help us better understand how we can assist you with resources and tools for engaging employers with your organization. The survey results will be used to develop marketing materials, seminars, and other assistance for organizations like yours. Your responses are very important to us and we will send you a $5 Starbucks gift card as a token of our appreciation for completing the survey. Please email Lisa Smith at lsmith@ecet.org with any questions about this survey.

Follow up with respondents. During administration, plan to follow up with nonrespondents at least once and possibly several times to remind them to respond. Plan to do your first follow up about five days after sending an online survey and about ten days after sending a paper survey. You can follow up by email and, if possible, telephone, to get the most responses. Online survey providers offer options to set up automatic follow-up emails to anyone who has not yet responded to the survey.

Improve your next survey. Look at your data and discuss it with colleagues. Ask yourselves the following questions:

  • Did the questions produced the responses you expected?
  • Were there places where people seemed confused?
  • Were there questions many people skipped?
  • Were there places in the survey where many people stopped completing the survey?
  • What questions worked well?
  • What questions did not yield interesting and usable data?
  • What does this mean for your next survey?

Take the time to reflect on and, if you plan to use it again, revise your survey now while everything is still fresh in your mind to improve your instrument and build your capacity to do research next time.

Tell Us More

Do you have any tips to share about ways you have successfully administered surveys? What are your tips and tricks for getting a good response rate?


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