Sheila here, writing with my delightful partner Kim Leonard, on yet another critically important, yet underappreciated aspect of survey design. 

Have you ever started a survey, only to click away when faced with a LONG block of text, or several pages to work through before you even get to the questions? Ever been asked to complete a survey but given no sense of what to expect from it (topic, length, etc.) and no clarity about how your responses will be used?

It doesn’t have to be this way!

A good, well thought out survey invitation can go a long way in preventing this kind of frustration. Centering respondents in survey design means paying attention to the respondent experience from start to finish–including the survey invitation. It isn’t difficult to write a compelling and helpful introduction to your survey, but somehow many survey researchers miss this opportunity to engage potential respondents and set them up for success. And let’s not forget too, that a good response rate is important to us!

In this post we list our must-have ingredients for the main communication that precedes a survey. These days, that often looks like an email with a link to complete the survey. Sometimes we need to include some of this invitation text at the top of the survey as well, but a good survey invitation can also help you avoid respondents having to wade through too much text on the actual survey tool. 

We’ve also included a few annotated examples of survey invitations we’ve received. These aren’t necessarily “good” or “bad” examples, but rather to share the variation in survey invitation approaches that exist. Note that none of these examples features every ingredient we recommend. Still, we think there are some good elements in each that can serve to inform or inspire our own survey invitations. 

Survey invitation ingredients

Open the invitation with a warm greeting. 

The greeting should be appropriate for your desired respondent audience. This can and should be simple! Here’s an example:

Unsplash survey invitation annotated

Be sure to include some basics.

  • WHO you are (and/or who has commissioned the survey)
  • WHAT the survey is about
  • WHY you’re conducting a survey (i.e., what is the survey’s purpose, in plain language)
  • WHERE their data will go or who have access
  • HOW their data will help others

Don’t forget key logistics.

  • WHERE to access the survey (i.e., a link?)
  • HOW long the survey is expected to take
  • WHEN the survey will be open (aka the “survey window”)
  • WHETHER the survey is anonymous or confidential. 

Note that anonymous and confidential are NOT the same thing. We often see surveys mistake one for the other. If you are conducting a survey virtually, unless you turn off the settings that capture IP addresses and contact information, your survey is confidential at best. Consider what data you’re capturing, who will have access to it, and how you’ll protect it, and be honest and transparent about that. Let’s not lose respondent trust from the start! 

You might also note for your respondents if the survey would be best completed on a computer monitor or will work just as well on a smartphone. Consider letting them know if the survey includes open-ended questions, unusual question types, or sensitive questions. 

This example lets the respondent know that they changed a previous requirement to include their organization’s name, and that this survey is considered confidential. 

ATD survey invitation annotated

Make it easy to find and complete the survey. 

  • Embed a link or button in your request if surveying virtually. If you’re reaching out to folks by mail for an electronic survey consider using an easy-to-type short link or QR code. 

Encourage your respondent! 

  • The survey invitation is a valuable opportunity to tell the respondent why it matters that they answer honestly, and to encourage them to take their time to answer completely.
  • Take care to not veer into patronizing language, however. Write an invitation that you would want to receive and demonstrate respect for the respondent’s experience and expertise. 

This example includes lots of information that helps respondents understand what to expect and encourage response, including that all questions are optional, and exactly which demographic information they will and will not be collecting. 

NY State survey invitation annotated

Be clear about incentives.

  • Incentives can also encourage response but are optional and require some deep thought and reflection before including them with your survey. A couple of questions to consider: 
    • What makes the most sense given the nature and purpose of your survey? 
    • What would be appropriate for and resonate with your respondents?
  • If you choose to include incentives, be sure to let respondents know how to access them, and whether they will compromise the anonymity of a survey.

Don’t forget gratitude! 

  • Pre-thank those you are reaching out to for their time and energy. After all, if they’ve read this far into your invitation, they’ve already given you some of their time and attention.

Note that each of the examples we shared here included a thank you to prospective respondents. Here’s one more that demonstrates some of these features:

Finimize survey invitation annotated

Are we missing anything important? What else might be important to include in a survey invitation that respects respondents? What do you like to see as a survey respondent?

🌟 Want to learn more? Kim and I are now offering our workshop Designing Quality Survey Questions as an online course, open to the public! You get a comprehensive 5-hr course and participant workbook along with two expert instructors to answer all your survey design questions. Learn more about the course and register for the next session. You’ll never look at a survey the same way!

Check out my other articles on survey design.

Interested in a talk or workshop on any of the topics I offer? I’d love to chat with you.