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Are you struggling with survey fatigue?

We’ve recently been hearing how hard it is to get a decent number of responses to a survey. And we’ve also heard from people who are working on projects where there is reluctance to send out “yet another survey”, because they think farmers are feeling over-surveyed. So we wondered whether survey fatigue is really true and what we might do to overcome it.

To start with, we should emphasise the importance of getting survey design right. We’ve actually covered this in a previous episode, Designing a decent survey. We think that spending time on getting a survey right is time well spent and can help increase response rates. But in this episode we’re going to explore survey fatigue. 

As always, we look to the literature to see whether research can shed any light on this. In the literature survey fatigue is equated to declining response rates over time. While this is an important indicator we’re not sure if this fully captures what’s going on. However, in work from 2004 researchers from the Wesleyan University in Connecticut explored survey fatigue and response rates. Interestingly, they found conflicting results. They found one study that looked at a series of farm surveys conducted over time by the US Department of Agriculture. They found there was no relationship between the number of times participants had been contacted and their response rate in later surveys. 

However, a different study they looked at asked people how many times they’d been contacted to participate in a survey. They found that the more times the respondents had been contacted, the less likely they were to respond to a later survey. The researchers concluded that while the evidence was mixed, too many surveys can reduce response rates, though this depended on the survey content. More recently in 2021, researchers in Utah and South Dakota documented declining responses to surveys. They proposed a few ideas to encourage response rates, such as providing a range of different ways of responding to a survey, such as paper-based and online options, so not just relying on one way to collect data. 

So where does that leave us? Well, we believe there are a few things that could help, and they relate to designing our surveys well. Firstly, understanding our audience and what might be the issue behind the declining response rates. Are we clearly explaining upfront why the survey is important and relevant to them? Are we asking in an appropriate way? Maybe we’re expecting them to respond online when their internet access is limited. Let’s make sure we understand our audience and what they find easy to do.

Second, let’s keep our surveys concise. We know it’s tempting to try to gather all the data we think we might need, but let’s be ruthless. What are the essential questions we need? Let’s ask only those! Thirdly, offer incentives. The work we mentioned earlier from Utah and South Dakota picked up on this. They found that pre-incentives (such as a small sum of money as a token of appreciation for people’s time) were useful. We think an incentive can be as simple as providing access to a summary of the results. This is an often overlooked and a relatively simple item to provide and again, shows respect for people’s time.

We also wanted to mention a couple of items that have been working really well for us recently. Firstly, build in time for the surveys to be completed during the event, and don’t expect people to find extra time afterwards to do that. We’ve also been using a QR code displayed on the final presentation slide, so people can access the survey quickly and easily on their phone. We do that at both online and in-person events, and for online ones we also provide the URL to the survey in the chat box. This is because it’s sometimes easier for people to type longer responses on their computer keyboard or in case someone still hasn’t worked out how to use QR codes!

Finally, we come back to something Jeff Coutts has said a few times now. Jeff has lots of experience in this space and his question is, “Who’s fatigue are we talking about?”. Sometimes we don’t want to be the person asking farmers for information yet again, and survey fatigue can become a bit of an excuse. If we’re doing our job well, there should be some benefits we’re offering to farmers for being involved in our projects or activities. It then shouldn’t be too much to ask for some quick feedback. 

And once again, we want to point out that designing a decent survey goes a long way to helping address this issue. Check out our previous episode on designing a decent survey, or this one on boosting response rates or even this one on using online polls and surveys

In summary, we should be better designing our surveys and also designing our events to allow time for surveying. But what do you think about this? We’d love to hear your thoughts on survey fatigue and any strategies you’ve used to overcome it. Share your thoughts in the comments below the blog post!

Thanks folks for joining us on this Enablers of change episode. Remember to subscribe to our newsletter if you’d like to know when new episodes are available. And if you liked what you heard, please tell your friends so they too can join the conversation!

Resources

Avemegah, E., Gu, W., Abulbasher, A., Koci, K., Ogunyiola, A., Eduful, J., … & Ulrich-Schad, J. D. (2021). An examination of best practices for survey research with agricultural producers. Society & Natural Resources, 34(4), 538-549.

Johansson, R., Effland, A., & Coble, K. (2017). Falling response rates to USDA crop surveys: Why it matters. farmdoc daily, 7(9).

Porter, S. R., Whitcomb, M. E., & Weitzer, W. H. (2004). Multiple surveys of students and survey fatigue. New directions for institutional research, 2004(121), 63-73.

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