Aim to engage: mastering survey length for better online survey research

In today’s fast-paced world, less is always more. Learn Kantar’s best practices for designing short, sweet, and effective online surveys with high completion rates.
26 January 2022
survey length online research

Senior Director, Modern Surveys, Profiles Division

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Market researchers understand the phrase ‘time is money’ all too well.

Though global wealth is on the rise, more and more consumers are finding themselves in a state of ‘time poverty.’ Simply put, they have too much to do and not enough time to do it. The leisure time they do have is often fragmented into short spurts – waiting for a client at a lunch meeting, riding the train to work, standing in line at a coffee shop.

During these fleeting moments, you have the opportunity to capture a consumer’s attention. But if your online survey eats up too much time – typically, more than 10 minutes – you could miss your chance.

What’s the relationship between responder dropout and online survey length?

Gone are the days when consumers answered surveys on desktop computers in quiet offices. Pinched for time, over 50% of people now complete surveys using mobile devices, likely while they are grabbing a latte or grocery shopping.

Needless to say, distractions abound. You are competing with the respondent’s environment – the sound of traffic, a child tugging at their parent’s sleeve, a friendly neighbour at the supermarket. But you are also competing with notifications, messages, and phone calls from the device itself. It’s only a matter of time before people lose patience and abandon the online survey altogether.

But just how much time? How long should a survey be? It’s best to keep surveys under 12 minutes – though 10 minutes is even better. Often, the longer the survey, the higher the dropout rate. Kantar has found that a survey that takes over 25 minutes loses more than three times as many respondents as one that is under five minutes.

Are there ways to calculate survey length?

On average, it takes about 7.5 seconds to answer an online survey question – at least, a very simple one. Of course, open-ended questions will require more time to answer than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question.

Though scientists have revealed fairly complicated formulas and models that can help you calculate survey length, the easiest way to estimate the average completion time is a simple gut check. Just take it yourself.

As you work through the survey, try to approach it from a consumer’s perspective. Are any questions unclear, or confusing? Can questions be shortened or even removed? Were you motivated to finish it?

Key factors that shape online survey effectiveness

In the intricate dance of online survey research design, finding the sweet spot in length is crucial. As we delve deeper into the factors that influence this, we'll unpack some essential insights that will drive survey effectiveness.

Survey objective:

Just like a well-tailored suit, a survey must fit its purpose. The objectives behind your survey can be the driving force determining its length. Are you after a quick pulse check or a deep dive into consumer sentiment? Regardless, if you stay true to your specific goal and craft a concise survey around it, respondents in turn will stay engaged and connected.

Target audience:

Your audience's age, their day job, even their weekend hobbies, all play a part in their patience and available time. The more you know about who's on the other side of the screen, the better you can cater to their pace and preferences.

Type of questions:

There's a world of difference between asking someone about product preferences and probing for thoughts on deeper topics. Open-ended questions, while rich in depth, demand more time and thought, whereas close-ended ones can sometimes be breezed through. It's essential to strike the right balance. Too many open-ended questions can exhaust your respondents, while an over-reliance on close-ended ones might lead to less depth.

How do you shorten online surveys to get a better response rate?

1. Answer questions yourself

Sure, this sounds counterintuitive. After all, isn’t the whole point of a survey to discover a consumer’s perspective? However, you should always take a hard look at your online survey and eliminate questions that can easily be answered using existing organisational data.

Since online panels are often profiled on basic demographics (like age and gender), you may not have to ask respondents. These tedious questions can deter or bore people at the start of the survey.

2. Identify and eliminate redundancy

No one enjoys repeating themselves, especially during elective surveys. Multiple questions that essentially ask the same thing or prompt similar responses can sorely affect engagement and lead to survey drop-out. For example, asking a respondent if they have heard of a brand and then asking if they are familiar with a brand is superfluous and, for many people, frustrating.

3. Avoid long lists and opt for iconography

Let’s face it – reading a large block of text is tricky on the commute to work and even more impossible when looking after children or cooking dinner. Spare your respondents the heartache by using iconography instead.

Our brains process visual content at an amazingly fast speed – some research suggests 60,000 times faster than text. That means when you incorporate icons, photos, and other visual prompts into your survey, respondents are more likely to answer the questions.

4. Consider your purpose

A well-designed survey has a clear, identifiable purpose, whether that be to monitor customer satisfaction or measure market perception. As such, every question asked in the survey should support that purpose. If it doesn’t, get rid of it!

5. Use routing to provide a personalised experience

Routing, also known as skip-logic or branching, can help you intelligently adapt the survey based on answers a respondent gives. For example, if a consumer isn’t aware of a certain brand, the survey can automatically skip questions pertaining to perceived brand quality.

Research shows that routing can increase a respondent’s likelihood of completing a survey by 100 to 200%. Why? Because it makes the survey more relevant to the person. They don’t become annoyed by questions that don’t apply to them. Skip-logic can also dramatically reduce the length of an online survey.

A quick caveat: When is a longer survey appropriate?

Though the ‘golden standard’ is a 10- to 12-minute online survey, the ideal survey length greatly depends on how engaging your survey is. If people become bored, they will drop out, and that will impact your results and representation of sample.

So, if your topic requires a more in-depth approach, longer can be OK. However, you should still make efforts to keep questions engaging – perhaps even more of an effort than with a shorter survey.

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