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Administering your questionnaire

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Top tips for choosing your sample and encouraging a strong response to your questionnaire.

Selecting respondents

You need to be clear about what you want to know, and why, and who will use the information before you decide who you want to complete your questionnaire.

Your respondents may come from:

  • your target group – those who you would like to use your services
  • your user group – those who actually use your services
  • non-users – those in your target group who know about your services but choose not to use them
  • potential users – those in your target group who do know about your services
  • other stakeholders
  • other professionals.

You may be able to reach all those in a specific audience. For example, your service users, or other professionals you are in touch with.

But if large numbers are involved, you may decide to select a sample. There are many ways to sample.

Your choice will depend on:

  • if you are doing quantitative or qualitative research, or both
  • what resources you have available
  • what other methods of research you are using.

Choosing your sample

There are two main issues to consider before choosing your sample.

  • Do you want to be able to infer that your results can be applied to the whole population – to draw the conclusion that findings apply to a wider group than those in your sample?
  • What size do you want your sample to be?

Type of sample

Probability sample

If you want to present conclusions about a whole population based on findings from the sample, you will need a probability sample. This draws a random selection of participants from a defined sampling frame. 

A sampling frame is a list of the individuals from whom you are going to obtain information. Sampling frames can include email distribution lists, members of an organisation, or a database of service users. Your sample will be drawn from this list.

You may not be able to use probability sampling because you cannot draw up a sampling frame to include the whole population. This will be the case with online surveys that are not available to all of your target audience.

Convenience sample

Organisations frequently obtain information about outcomes from a convenience sample. This is a type of non-probability sample, allowing respondents to self-select to take part. You can get valuable information and useful insights from this type of sampling.

Whichever type of sample you use, it will be important to get wide coverage, and to make the responses as representative as you can.

A good response rate

There are no absolutes about what will be a good or an acceptable response rate. This will depend on the context of the questionnaire.

The better you know the respondents, the more likely you are to have a higher response rate.


A poor response rate has the risk of introducing bias. Remember that those who return questionnaires most readily are likely to be those who have either a really positive, or a really negative, viewpoint.

Proactively search out and encourage those who may have views that are less fixed either way, or who do not normally have their voice heard.

Response bias is a particular concern with online questionnaires. Samples will be biased towards those who have online access and are comfortable using computers.

Encourage a good response

There are a number of ways that you can encourage a good response rate.

  • Write a brief invitation to accompany the questionnaire. You could also contact your sample before circulating the questionnaire to let people know it is on the way, and invite them to complete it. Send it directly to the person who you want to respond if possible.
  • If you are posting a link to the questionnaire on different websites, or through electronic newsletters and bulletins, include key points in a short paragraph with the link.
  • Make it clear who you are.
  • Explain the purpose briefly, clearly and in plain English.
  • Tell people how long it will take to complete the questionnaire and give them a realistic time to do it in. Include a deadline for responses and any return details.
  • Offer assurances about confidentiality and anonymity.
  • Provide contact details, for example, if respondents want a version to suit their access requirements.
  • Make sure your questionnaire looks attractive.
  • Include clear questions that are relevant to your respondents.
  • Keep your questionnaire short and to the point.

Increase the response rate

You are likely to increase the response rate if you:

  • send follow-up invitations
  • remind people of the deadline.

You may decide to extend the deadline if you feel additional time is useful. There are different opinions about whether reminders should be sent more than once.

Use incentives

The main incentive to participate is that respondents feel that it will be in their own interest or that of their organisation.

Illustrate how the survey is important. Give examples to show how it will:

  • develop a better understanding of needs
  • improve the service
  • promote better outcomes
  • encourage new funding.

Research has shown that clear incentives increase response rates to online surveys. So make it clear in your introduction and publicity that questionnaire respondents can enter a prize draw – for example, to win gift vouchers.

Page last edited Dec 16, 2016

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