Surveying the Audience

The most effective way to establish the baseline levels of behavior and perceptions in your population is through the use of surveys. During our work, we found that web surveys were the most effective way in getting a large response rate. Web surveys are especially suited for college students because of their familiarity with the technology, the containment of the population (i.e., all are part of a very specific community), and the ability for the students to take the survey at their own pace and during the time that works best for them. Not only are web surveys great for students, but they are also highly advantageous for researchers. They provide quick turnaround for data analysis, higher response rates, less missing data, and they eliminate interviewer effects.

Surveying can be a daunting experience, but the following are several tips to help along the way.


  1. Plan – It is incredibly important to be exacting when planning the survey. Make sure to:
    1. Decide what topics will be covered (e.g., drinking behaviors, perceptions, protective behaviors, environment specific events, etc.). The more knowledgeable about a topic, the more likely people will participate
    2. Decide when to administer the survey. Be sure to take into consideration breaks (e.g., Spring break, Fall break), midterms, and final exams, Holidays.
    3. Develop useful questions. It is ok to borrow questions from other researchers or use already developed and tested material. Think about what you want to gain and whether each question will help to achieve that goal.
  2. Incentives – Offering incentives for survey completion is a must! It will provide a definite increase in response rates. There are two different types of incentives: Individual rewards and lottery rewards. Individual rewards are given to every person who completes the survey (e.g., a coupon for a free pizza). Lottery rewards are awarded to individuals at random (e.g., 10 people receive a $50 gift certificate to the campus bookstore). Individual rewards are more expensive but provide higher response rates.
    1. How to get low cost incentives – By working with local businesses you can acquire low cost incentives. Tell local businesses how many people will see the survey and approach student-focused businesses, such as local pizza places. A lot of local businesses are happy to provide the incentives at cost for the free advertising.
  3. Survey Design – For web surveys it is important to keep in mind variable operating systems, screen resolutions, different kinds of browsers, and internet connection speeds. If you design below the cutting edge, more people will be able to complete the survey. Here are 14 simple rules for designing a survey
    1. Emphasize security by providing login screen with PIN or password to control access.
    2. Keep font face (Arial, Veranda, Helvetica) and color simple (black).
    3. Avoid having to “page or scroll down” by limiting the number of questions per page.
    4. Avoid question wrapping.
    5. Use Next/Previous page buttons.
    6. Use a progress bar.
    7. Number the questions.
    8. Bold question numbers.
    9. Begin with an interesting, simple to answer question applicable to all on the topic.
    10. Use simple question styles, radio button, check boxes, matrixes, and simple fills as often as possible.
    11. Avoid questions that require lengthy text responses.
    12. Group similar questions together.
  4. Notifying the Sample – Once a survey has been designed and tested it is time to notify the sample. The best way to notify the sample is through a double-barreled method.
    1. Pre-Letter or Pre-Email Notification – Send the sample a personalized letter notification several days before the survey opens. The letter should include the purpose and goal of the research, when and at what email address they will received the email notification, how long the survey will be active, access information (ID’s, pass codes), what they will get out of it (i.e., incentives), how their privacy will be protected, and contact information for the surveyors.
    2. Email Notification – This email repeats much of the information of the original letter, but also provides a link for the survey.
    3. Reminders – Be sure to send one or two reminders for the survey. Mention previous notifications, sympathize about why the student might not have responded, mention the importance of the survey, and include the incentive information again.