Do You Need Financial Incentives to Increase Your Survey Response Rates?

Tips To Increase Survey Response Rates

Users often ask us, “what response rate will I get from my survey?”, or “how can I increase my survey’s response rate?”

The truth is …. it depends!

Response rates depend on your organisation, your respondents, and their motivation for responding. Most of our users assume that financial incentives are the most effective for stimulating engagement, and indeed research shows they can enhance response rates. But they are not always necessary and rarely sufficient. The design of your survey — its structure, tone and content — is equally important and often ignored.

In a recent SMS survey conducted for the third time on behalf of a UN agency and government ministry, Echo’s Deployment team demonstrated that minor adjustments to survey design can drastically increase response rates, regardless of financial incentives.

In May 2017, the team sent a survey with a KES 35 airtime incentive to 25,000 Kenyan government employees, 21% of whom completed it. In October 2017, Deployment sent the same survey to the same group with the same airtime incentive. This time only 16% completed it. In February 2018, we sent the survey again, with minor design tweaks and no financial incentives. The completion rate nearly doubled to 29%.

Win-win! Our client saved money by dropping the airtime transfers and got more results. More of their beneficiaries were able to engage and provide critical feedback. Here are the design changes we made to the survey. Consider them next time you’re using Echo for Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E):

Personalize the content

The Echo Platform allows users to personalize messages using standard fields — basic, common data points like name, ID and location, which can be stored in Echo contact profiles and can be integrated into large-scale messages.

Unlike in 2017, in the 2018 version of the UN survey, our Deployment team added the NAME field to the first SMS. As a result, all recipients immediately saw their name before automatically progressing to the first question. This builds a sense of trust, captures recipients’ attention, and is less likely to be mistaken for spam.

And you don’t need to to just stick to standard fields! Any prior response to a survey can be stored as a custom field. If you ask recipients their favorite football team and store the response as a custom field, the next time you send them SMS you can personalize your content even further: “Hi [NAME]. Hope [FOOTBALL_TEAM] is doing well this week….”

Skip the “opt-in”

The Echo platform’s survey builder allows you to add an invitation message as the first SMS sent to a contact. To move from this intro message on to the first question, recipients must “opt-in” by responding to this initial message with something like “ok” or “begin” (any word/number will do).

Sample survey designs, before optimisation.

Invitation messages are extremely useful. They help you be polite, introduce yourself if the recipient doesn’t know you, and say what your survey is about and why and how they can proceed (more below on instructions!). But they can also create a barrier to completion.

Observing that many respondents had failed to opt in to our 2017 survey, for the 2018 version of the survey we dropped the invitation message. Instead, we took that content and sent it as an info question, which, by design, automatically progress to the next question, regardless of a response or not.

Fig 1: Optimised survey ; personalised, does not require the respondent to opt in, and has clear instructions on how to reply.

Removing the opt-in invitation message won’t always help you, but in this case, respondents were employees of our client and had been engaging on their shortcode for years. In some ways the intro message just added an extra step for them.

In other cases, users might be suspicious of the opt-in request. Many Kenyans have encountered premium SMS services that push messages to unknowing respondents and deduct airtime from them once they opt in. Messaging with Echo is totally free for your respondents, but consider how they might react to an opt-in intro message, and design your survey accordingly!

Give clear Instructions

Keeping in mind SMS character limit, our Deployment team added quick instructions at the end of each question in the 2018 survey. These guided the respondents on how to answer specific question types. In the prior 2017 versions, each SMS had only contained the question, without instructions on how to answer:

Send reminders

For the 2017 surveys, we automated a reminder, sent 24 hours after the survey to those who had not yet started or completed it. For the 2018 version we added a second reminder, sent 12 hours later.

Reminders like these nudge contacts who are willing to respond to the survey but may have become distracted before completing it. This is especially true for long surveys like the one we have been deploying for the UN, which risk respondent fatigue. Reminders are a subtle way of urging them to finish the survey. Better yet — keep it lean!

So, whats the take away here?

While research on the potential impact of financial incentives is clear, no amount of money or airtime can make up for suboptimal survey design!

Monetary rewards can move the response rate in the margins, but not always, and only if you get the design right first. Financial incentives are complementary to a well designed survey that has useful and clear content, an efficient structure, and a personal tone.

That said, non-financial incentives — the broader reasons why your contacts might want to engage with you at all — are an extremely important consideration. Not everyone’s time and information can be bought.

Consider for your next survey or engagement what informational, relational, or emotional incentives you might be explicitly or implicitly offering up front. As with any relationship, both sides ultimately need to feel like there is some benefit to the commitment. We’ll blog more about this idea soon!

Want to learn more from the Echo Deployment team? We consult on mobile engagement strategy and techniques, and can provide implementation support for survey creation, setup, optimization, deployment, and tracking on the Echo Platform.