How to Avoid Survey Attrition and Keep Sought-After Respondents

Survey attrition affects many research projects, whether they deal with market research or other varieties. A detriment to survey research, attrition creates a challenge that concerns retaining sought-after survey respondents, the kinds that provide the most value for your study.

As such, researchers ought to understand survey attrition, where and how it occurs, along with heeding best practices to weed it out. This will ensure that they form effective survey studies for valuable research.

This article expounds on survey attrition in its dominant forms, in addition to the methods researchers should adopt to reduce and avoid it altogether.

Defining Survey Attrition

Attrition is a term denoting the weakening or tearing away of something through sustained means. In survey and market research, the latter part of the definition usually occurs inadvertently, as no researcher would purposefully want to debilitate their research campaigns. 

In more specific terms, survey attrition involves the decrease of the sample size, number, or strength and can occur intermittently or permanently.

Survey attrition occurs through several adverse phenomena, since in simple terms, it refers to the act of leaving a survey study.  As such, there is no single form of survey attrition; however, survey attrition has typically focused on two kinds of attrition.

The Two Main Types of Survey Attrition

Although plenty of factors can fuel attrition, as most researchers have experienced survey respondents leaving a survey study, there are two main categories of survey attrition. As such, survey attrition research is committed to understanding these two predominant forms, along with the methods to increase participation.

Nonresponse Attrition

Also called nonusage attrition, nonresponse attrition refers to when those invited to complete a survey opt out of participating, thus rendering the loss of these respondents. This form of attrition occurs within systems that involve researchers reaching out to respondents and recruiting them, such as in survey panels and focus groups. 

Another form of nonresponse attrition is more difficult to tract; it involves those who were reached via automated survey means. Since these users never entered the survey by the nature of nonresponse attrition, they are virtually impossible to monitor. 

Dropout Attrition


Dropout attrition refers to respondents who have already begun a survey and dropped out, as the name suggests. This attrition can occur in any kind of survey distribution method, from targeted outreach such as emails and survey panels, along with automated surveys and prompts on landing pages, etc.

This kind of attrition can be tracked through certain online survey platforms, although not all will offer this capability. Often, studying dropout attrition involves studying the completion rate.

How to Avoid Non-Response Attrition

Researchers should bear in mind that there are going to be targeted members of your survey research that won’t even open your survey. There are, however, several practices that can reduce non-response attrition. Here are a few examples:

  1. Create highly targeted surveys. Solicit respondents via a survey that somehow relates to respondents or their market segment. No one likes receiving junk mail or being spammed with survey requests. 
  2. Reach those who interacted with a CX you can confirm. Ex: a purchase, a browsing session with no conversions (usually can be tracked with signed-in users), a phone interaction, etc.
    1. This will stamp out the feeling of randomness, so that the respondent doesn’t feel they are randomly selected, i.e., being spammed.
  3. Use incentives. Survey incentives grant respondents with a motivation to spend time out of their busy schedules on a survey.
  4. Don’t over-survey. Even if a respondent has taken part in a survey, there is no guarantee they won’t ignore a second request (or others). If you need to follow up, consider using other individuals in your target market.
  5. Be upfront with the purpose and the survey’s importance. Respondents should not feel they are randomly selected — or that they’re selected for something of little importance. Thus, make the purpose of the survey clear, highlighting its need and usefulness, for example, to improve their customer experience. 
  6. Display the time required to take the survey.  For transparency, make the estimated completion time clear so respondents will know if they are able to take it based on the time they have.  
  7. Consider instances most relevant to the target population. Send the surveys around those instances. Certain market segments have key dates that you can base your surveys around. For example, if you are looking to conduct a real estate survey and your target market is college grads, send the survey around graduation time, when the grads move out of their dorms and into their post-college life. 

How to Avoid Dropout Attrition

Avoiding dropout attrition involves optimizing the in-survey experience, i.e., the survey itself. Researchers can encourage respondents to complete their survey in a number of ways.  Here are a few critical methods to avoid dropout attrition.

    1. Keep survey size commensurate with the survey incentive. If you’re not granting any incentives for taking the survey, keep your surveys short, at no more than 5 questions. However, if you provide incentives, then the survey length should be proportional to the incentives. If a survey takes longer than 10 minutes to complete, consider offering a more substantial incentive.
    2. Optimize it across devices. We are no longer living in a digital-only, i.e., desktop-only world. Instead, many devices are used on the go like mobile phones and tablets. Assure that your survey can be easily seen, accessed and used across all devices. This includes checking for loading times, for content fits on the screen and no points of friction. 
    3. Keep questions on-topic. Irrelevant surveys or surveys that seem to veer from the topic they initially presented the respondents with, will easily deter the respondents from completing the surveys. These stir up confusion, boredom and sometimes, even stress. 
    4. Customize follow-up questions. Each respondent answers differently; as such not all respondents should be taken to the same questions. Instead, route respondents to questions based on the answers they provided via advanced skip logic.
    5. Avoid ambiguity in your questions. If they have to overthink a question or feel as though they’re unable to answer it, chances are, the respondents won’t complete the survey. Assure you provide all possible answers in your multiple-choice questions. If this is not practical, include an option for “other,” and allow it to be open-ended.
    6. Create engaging experiences with multi-media. These elements include photos, videos, GIFs and the like. Aside from embellishing the questionnaire, they create engaging experiences that stimulate your respondents beyond a text-only survey.
    7. Check your completion rates. Check your completion rate regularly. These should be available in the online survey platform you use for your survey campaigns. 

Maintaining a Steady Flow of Survey Participation

Since survey attrition cannot be fully avoided, so researchers ought to maintain steady response and completion rates. Additionally, they ought to keep optimizing their surveys, so that they are providing both the respondents and the researchers a smooth, glitch-free experience. 

Aside from the technical function of the survey, its success largely hinges on its questionnaire, which should always be kept relevant to the sampling pool. As such, market segmentation comes into play. As a marketer or market researcher, you ought to be in tune with the makeup of your target market — or target population if you are a general researcher.

This requires conducting preliminary market research. A potent online survey tool will help you achieve this with no hassle, allowing you to retain your most sought-after responders.