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Social Exchange Theory and Questionnaires Part 2: Communication and Distribution

Posted by on October 20th, 2017 Posted in: Blog, Questionnaires and Surveys


Handshake between a laptop and a humanLast week we talked about how to think about questionnaire design in terms of social exchange theory – how to lower perceived cost and raise perceived rewards and trust in order to get people to complete a questionnaire.

But there’s more to getting people to complete a questionnaire than its design.  There are the words you use to ask people to complete your questionnaire (often in the form of the content of an email with the questionnaire attached).  And there’s the method of distribution itself – will you email? Mail? Hand it to someone? How many times should you remind someone?

As we have said in the previous post, Boosting Response Rates with Invitation Letters , we recommend the Dillman’s Tailored Design Method (TDM) as a technique for improving response rates.  In TDM, in order to get the most responses, you might communicate with your respondents four times. For example, an introduction email before the questionnaire goes out, the email with the questionnaire attached, and two reminders. How does this fit with social exchange theory?

Let’s go back to the three questions we said in the last post that you should always consider, and apply them to communication about and distribution of your questionnaire:

  • How can I make this easier and less time-intensive for the respondent? (Lower cost)
  • How can I make this a more rewarding experience for the respondent? (Increase reward)
  • How can I reassure the participants that it is safe to share information? (Increase trust)

Remember, when you are asking someone to complete a questionnaire for you, you are asking them to take time out of their lives that they cannot get back.  Remember too that they have been asked to complete many, many questionnaires in the past that have taken up too much of their time, annoyed them, or have clearly been designed to manipulate them into donating money or in some other way abused their trust.  You have to use your communication and distribution strategy to overcome these obstacles. Here are just a few ideas.

Decrease Perceived Cost

  • Be sure respondents have multiple ways of contacting someone with questions. This reduces the possibility that someone will put off responding to the questionnaire because they have a question and have to figure out who to ask.
  • Add a “reply by” date in all of your invitation emails. Many people find it easier to follow up with a task if there is a clear deadline.

Increase Perceived Reward 

  • Ask respondents directly for their help and tell them specifically why you are asking for their opinions.  This may help your respondents’ to understand that they are uniquely able to answer the questions and feel like they are contributing to something. For many people, this is a reward.
  • If you can afford to, consider including a token gift with your first invitation email. This small gift of $1 or $2 as a token of appreciation demonstrates trust and respect that the organization distributing the questionnaire shows for the respondents. And research shows that it provides better results than a larger amount of money given only to people who respond.

Increase Perceived Trust

  • Have someone trusted by your participants to endorse your project (such as, by signing  your pre-letter, posting to a circulated newsletter or blog). This builds trust that you are trusted among their peers.
  • Tell them how you will keep their responses confidential and secure.
  • For mail surveys, use first-class postage – this will increase their trust that you take the questionnaire seriously.

Source: Dillman DA, Smyth JD, and Christian LM. Internet, Phone, Mail, and Mixed-Mode Surveys: The Tailored Design Method, 4th edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley; 2014.

Image of the author ABOUT Karen Vargas

As Evaluation Specialist for the NNLM Evaluation Office (NEO), Karen Vargas participates in evaluating the programs of the NNLM, assists people with their program and evaluation planning, and teaches classes on planning and evaluating library programs.



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