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Improve Response Rates

Commonly associated with survey methods, response rates refer to the percentage of eligible sample units (e.g., students) that participate in a study.
Ensuring that you take measures to achieve your target sample size (i.e., obtaining a high response rate) is extremely important because a poor response rate can influence the findings and the generalizability of your results.
  • A high response rate means that you have collected data on a high percentage of the units in the target sample.
  • A low response rate means that a low percentage of units in the target sample participated in the study.

If your target sample is representative of the population of interest, a good response rate generally means that your results can be generalized to the population of interest. However, if your response rate was low, your results may be biased. For example, findings from a survey could be biased if certain members of the sample population are more likely to take the time to respond.

Therefore, when examining your response rate it is important to look both at the participants who have responded from your sample, as well as those who have not. It is possible that your study design or your data collection instrument and process created a sampling bias by either preventing some participants from responding or making it difficult for them to respond at the same rate as other participants. It is important to remember, however, that increasing your sample size will not increase your response rate.

The United Way of America (1996) recommends that you get at least a 50% response rate to a survey, while many government-led and/or federally-funded projects require a response rate of at least 75%. Seventy-five percent, however, is difficult to attain if your project has limited financial and staffing resources. Therefore, it is important for you to target a predetermined response rate and leverage your resources to meet that goal.

There are several things that you can do at little to no cost to raise your survey response rates. Listed below are a list of no cost, low cost, and moderate cost strategies that can help you boost your response rates.

NO Cost Strategies

  • Personalize the study and your data collection instrument
    • Make the study meaningful to participants; tell them how the results will benefit them and/or their community.
    • Use the participants’ names in all communication and in the instruments.
    • Reference a family/friend/colleague who referred the participant to you.
  • Ensure confidentiality
  • Use culturally relevant surveying and/or interviewing practices
  • Respect participants’ time (make their time commitment as small as possible)
  • Be flexible with your deadlines and when scheduling interviews/focus groups

LOW Cost Strategies

  • Follow-up with participants
    • Send reminders (phone, mail, e-mail)
    • Provide replacement surveys with mail and e-mail reminders
  • Use attention grabbers
    • Colorful paper and mailing envelopes
    • Use attention grabbing announcements and flyers
  • Make participation easy
    • Provide self-addressed and stamped return envelopes
    • Provide surveys in multiple formats (i.e. paper and electronic)
  • Provide child care during the interview/focus group

MODERATE Cost Strategies

  • Offer incentives for participation
    • Provide prizes (e.g., enter into a drawing, individual gift cards to a local business, donation to participant’s organization, able to participate in a special trip or activity, etc.)
    • Have food available during interviews/focus groups
  • Translate all materials into participants’ first language