Whether you're concerned with customer satisfaction or employee contentment, or need feedback on a specific initiative, it is critical to go straight to the source and collect feedback directly from constituents.

Online surveys are an increasingly common way to solicit feedback, but response rates are often quite low due to poor survey design, lengthy surveys, requests for personal information, or a lack of incentives for survey completion.

So how do you ensure that people respond to your survey?

Follow these seven simple rules of engagement to increase the responses to your online survey.

Rule #1: Make a good first impression

Convince your audience to read past the survey invitation. Survey administrators must grab the target's attention with the subject line, text, and graphics.

Jazz up the invitation and introductory page with color, graphics, and catchy text.

And don't forget to craft a compelling, but also honest and concise, subject line no more than 60 characters in length.

Rule #2: Assume nothing

Don't expect individuals to respond to your survey just because you sent an invitation.

People ignore surveys for all sorts of reasons—lack of time, no incentive, lack of clarity in the subject line, fear that the survey is not coming from a credible source, etc. Many survey administrators fail to pay attention to these kinds of details.

It's also important to be aware of timing. When inviting survey responses, avoid Mondays and Fridays, as well as the days before and after holidays, as these are often hectic days for professionals and there is a low probability of survey completion.

An ideal time to release surveys is in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon, when people are most likely to be on email and not overloaded with messages.

Incentives for survey completion should be used whenever possible and can have a significant impact on survey completion rates. How about a gift card to Amazon.com or Starbucks? A 10% off coupon for the next purchase at your online store? These will increase your response rate.

Rule #3: Avoid biased questions

There's nothing worse than a biased survey. Many surveys pose questions that lead survey takers to a particular answer—for example, a question such as "Are you very motivated when you arrive to the office, or just motivated?"

Questions that are worded unfairly or contain biased language are turnoffs to survey takers and will not yield the end result you intend. Third-party review is often helpful if you are concerned about word choice and bias.

To remain focused on unbiased responses, pose questions without an expected answer in mind and prepare for a variety of responses.

Rule #4: More is not always better

Many organizations believe the more questions they ask, the more measurable the results will be. However, the reality is the exact opposite. The more questions asked, the less focused and thoughtful survey responses are and the more survey takers rush to exit.

Instead of asking every possible question under the sun, survey designers should keep the survey focused and to the point.

Survey administrators should bear in mind that to get a solid response rate the number of questions should not exceed 30.

Rule #5: Don't spam your audience

Be conscious of how many emails you send to your target audience—it is important to be compliant with the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. Avoid sending unnecessary follow-ups or even too many surveys for that matter. Keep track of who you send what to, and in what manner they are sent. The last thing you would want is to be added to an individual's spam list.

Rule #6: Don't quit before the race is over

It's often incorrectly assumed that survey results will magically point to solutions. Instead, the data collected needs to be analyzed and interpreted in order to identify key points and issues.

To achieve respectable analysis, the survey should be created with its specific purpose in mind. Questions and topics should be carefully brainstormed to meet end goals.

Rule #7: Share the wealth

Survey administrators should keep in mind that the results collected can be used in a variety of contexts other than originally planned. Results can open unexpected doors. Thus, keep all responses on file. One never knows if a related issue could be lurking in the distance.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dean Wiltse is chairman and CEO of Vovici (www.vovici.com). He was president and CEO of Greenfield Online and took the company public in 2004.