SurveyTip: Get to the point, but be polite

A survey should aim to be like a conversation.  Online surveys don’t have humans involved to listen to how someone feels about the survey, to reword for clarity or to encourage, so you have to work harder to generate comfort.  Although you don’t want to take too long (the number one complaint of survey takers is time), it is still better to work up to the key questions gradually if possible.  Even though it might be the burning issue for you, you risk turning someone off if you launch straight into the most important question. A few preliminary questions should also help put the respondent into the right frame of mind for the topic.

Generally, the best approach is to build up the intensity, starting from less important questions and then moving to the critical questions as quickly as possible, building up the survey taker’s engagement as you go.  Then reduce the intensity with clarifying questions and demographics.  That way, if someone bails out early, you’ll still have the most important information (assuming that your survey tool and/or your sample company allow you to look at partial surveys).

There are exceptions of course, and one comes from the use of online panels, particularly when you set up quotas and pay for completed surveys.  In this case, one or more demographic questions, used for screening, will be placed very early. 

Or sometimes the topic of the survey dictates the order, as with awareness studies where unaided awareness is usually one of the first questions.  You might also order the questions based on the survey logic. 

If you need to include a response from an earlier question in a later question (piping), or if the answer to one question will determine which other questions are asked (skip logic), this may impose a question order. 

For complex surveys, there are likely to be tradeoffs that are best decided by careful review of the questionnaire (as a document) before starting programming.  This is why questionnaire writing is a combination of experience and science with a little bit of guesswork thrown in for good measure.

One example of how a softer start helped was a survey for an organization considering new services.  The original questionnaire launched straight into the questions for the new services after a brief introduction.  Responses trickled in slowly.  When a question about membership in the organization was moved up to the beginning, the response rates jumped and we were able to complete the survey on time.

If you show respect for your survey takers, they’ll appreciate it and they’ll reward you by completing the entire survey.  Good luck!

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