Guidelines for increasing mail survey return rates

How can we increase the willingness of the recipients to take the time and trouble to complete and return the postal survey? The strategies most frequently mentioned in the measurement literature are as follows (see also Section 3.3, which offers general - i.e., not restricted to postal surveys in particular - strategies to promote respondent attitudes):

• Pre-survey letters give advance notice about the purpose and nature of the forthcoming questionnaire and can create a favorable climate for the survey.

• Careful timing of the mailing. First, it is advisable to avoid mailings at holiday periods or particularly busy times of the year. Second, questionnaires that arrive in the second half of the week are more likely to be dealt with over the weekend.

• Make the opening and concluding questions in the questionnaire particularly interesting: the former to whet the respondents' appetite and the latter to encourage the return of the questionnaire.

• Emphasize that the recipient's responses are needed and valuable.

• The reputation of a prestigious sponsoring organization may be the necessary final push for the recipient to get down to completing the questionnaire. If some of the questions are related to the respondent's workplace, it is important that the organization in charge of the survey is seen as independent.

• With postal surveys, making the layout of the questionnaire (cf. Section 2.1.2) attractive is more important than with hand-delivered questionnaires.

• Use good quality paper and envelope.

• The address should be typed and special care needs to be taken that the person's name is spelled correctly and that the person's title is accurate - writing 'Miss' instead of 'Mrs.' is seen as annoying by some and others do not like the title 'Ms.' Susan Gass (personal communication, 18 January, 2002) has successfully used a 'stopgap' strategy in the past in cases in which she was not sure about the exact title by only writing 'M.' She found that this is less disturbing for people with strong feelings about either Ms. or Miss than using the wrong title.

• Send the questionnaire by first-class mail or some equivalent in order to emphasize that it is not one of those 'bulk deliveries.'

• Send a small token of appreciation as it might be helpful because it evokes the human instinct of reciprocation.

Unfortunately, even if we observe all these guidelines we cannot expect high respondent motivation. A return rate of more than 50 percent can be considered satisfactory and response rates higher than 80 percent are rarely obtained (Aiken, 1997).

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