Effectiveness of incentives and follow-up on increasing survey response rates and participation in field studies

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Background: Questionnaires are valuable data collection instruments in public health research, and can serve to pre-screen respondents for suitability in future studies. Survey non-response leads to reduced effective sample sizes and can decrease representativeness of the study population, so high response rates are needed to minimize the risk of bias. Here we present results on the success of different postal questionnaire strategies at effecting response, and the effectiveness of these strategies at recruiting participants for a field study on the effects of aircraft noise on sleep. Methods: In total, we mailed 17 rounds of 240 questionnaires (total n = 4080) to randomly selected households around Atlanta International Airport. Different mailing rounds were varied in the length of the questionnaire (11, 26 or 55 questions), survey incentive (gift card or $2 cash), number of follow-up waves (0, 2 or 3), incentive for participating in a 5-night in-home sleep study ($100, $150 or $200), and address personalization. Results: We received completed questionnaires from 407 respondents (response rate 11.4%). Personalizing the address, enclosing a $2 cash incentive with the initial questionnaire mailing and repeated follow-up mailings were effective at increasing response rate. Despite the increased expense of these approaches in terms of each household mailed, the higher response rates meant that they were more cost-effective overall for obtaining an equivalent number of responses. Interest in participating in the field study decreased with age, but was unaffected by the mailing strategies or cash incentives for field study participation. The likelihood that a respondent would participate in the field study was unaffected by survey incentive, survey length, number of follow-up waves, field study incentive, age or sex. Conclusions: Pre-issued cash incentives and sending follow-up waves could maximize the representativeness and numbers of people from which to recruit, and may be an effective strategy for improving recruitment into field studies.




Smith, M. G., Witte, M., Rocha, S., & Basner, M. (2019). Effectiveness of incentives and follow-up on increasing survey response rates and participation in field studies. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 19(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12874-019-0868-8

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