Background: Minimising participant non-response in postal surveys helps to maximise the generalisability of the inferences made from the data collected. The aim of this study was to examine the effect of questionnaire length, personalisation and reminder type on postal survey response rate and quality and to compare the cost-effectiveness of the alternative survey strategies.
Methods: In a pilot study for a population study of travel behaviour, physical activity and the environment, 1000 participants sampled from the UK edited electoral register were randomly allocated using a 2×2 factorial design to receive one of four survey packs: a personally addressed long (24 page) questionnaire pack, a personally addressed short (15 page) questionnaire pack, a non-personally addressed long questionnaire pack or a non-personally addressed short questionnaire pack. Those who did not return a questionnaire were stratified by initial randomisation group and further randomised to receive either a full reminder pack or a reminder postcard. The effects of the survey design factors on response were examined using multivariate logistic regression.
Results: An overall response rate of 17% was achieved. Participants who received the short version of the questionnaire were more likely to respond (OR=1.48, 95% CI 1.06 to 2.07). In those participants who received a reminder, personalisation of the survey pack and reminder also increased the odds of response (OR=1.44, 95% CI 1.01 to 1.95). Item non-response was relatively low, but was significantly higher in the long questionnaire than the short (9.8% vs 5.8%; p=.04). The cost per additional usable questionnaire returned of issuing the reminder packs was £23.1 compared with £11.3 for the reminder postcards.
Conclusions: In contrast to some previous studies of shorter questionnaires, this trial found that shortening a relatively lengthy questionnaire significantly increased the response. Researchers should consider the trade off between the value of additional questions and a larger sample. If low response rates are expected, personalisation may be an important strategy to apply. Sending a full reminder pack to non-respondents appears a worthwhile, albeit more costly, strategy.