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Four Factors That Determine the Maximum Length of Your Online Survey

How long should your be? I’ve seen and participated in a number of discussions on this topics over the last several years. After all, you want to collect as much information as possible from your respondents but at the same time you don’t want to annoy them to the point where they quit the survey half-way through. I’ve compiled a list of four factors/questions which determine how long your online survey can reasonably be to avoid dropouts.

Let’s first acknowledge that when it comes to conducting any survey, the most important element — the most value adding component is the respondent (not the survey software). Most people only have access to a limited number of respondents AND chances are they are only going to get one opportunity to collect the information they need.

Which is why we as researchers tend to want to ask as many questions as we can of each respondent who we manage to convince to participate in our survey. Ask now, or you may never get another chance. Or you’ll have to pay for a whole new panel. Or you’ll have to squeeze, squeeze, squeeze the information out of the data you were able to collect the first time. And squeezed data is never pretty.

The trouble is, when you make the survey too long respondents drop out.  I remember a couple of years ago participating in a phone survey. The survey went on, and on, and on and every time we got to the end of topic, I thought it would be over. But it never ended. I eventually hung up.

So it is a balance. And capturing that balance can be challenging. I’ve personally come up with four key considerations that more than anything else dictate how long a survey can be.

1) What does the respondent get for taking the survey? The bigger the incentive, the longer the survey can be. But keep in mind, unless it is a guaranteed incentive (finish the survey and we’ll send you a T-Shirt) you’re only going to get so far. For example, a sweepstakes in which the respondent can win $10,000 will do better than a sweepstakes for $1,000 but not necessarily 10 times better and not nearly as well as a survey in which the respondent automatically receives $20.

2) How interesting in the survey subject to the respondent? I will get the same dropout rate for a long survey about new rollercoasters than I will for a relatively short survey about toothpaste. People like to take surveys about subjects that they find interesting and will stay in a survey a lot longer if it is one that lets them think or discuss matters that are of interest to them.

3) How much fun is it to complete the survey? Believe it or not, a survey doesn’t have to be a boring, unpleasant experience. Questions can be written in an interesting or witty way, and response options can be configured in such a way that that the survey is fun for the respondent to take. For example, it is much more fun to click on pictures of things than on words — and it is more fun to drag a list of items into a specific order than it is to rank items using drop down boxes. The more fun your survey is to take, the longer it can be.

4) What impact will completing the survey have on the respondent? If I’m conducing a survey in my neighborhood to decide whether or not the lot on the corner is turned into a new park or a junk yard, I can feel confident that I’ll get a good response rate from the people living on my street no matter how long the survey is. People will spend more time on a survey that they know impacts them in some way — much more than they’ll spend on a survey that they know only benefits you.

By thinking about how these four factors come together within the context of your survey, you can make a determination regarding how you want to present your survey and whether or not you need to offer a better incentive or — if all else fails — reconsider the length of your survey.

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