Uncompleted surveys are a huge waste of money and the better your completion rate is the cheaper your project is going to be. The key is to manage the attention of survey participants, and it’s not as hard as it sounds.

In this blog post I want to share a few insights we’ve gained over the years on how to increase the completion rate of surveys. I want you to avoid common mistakes and instead choose the right tool to run a successful survey at scale.

That means, half-completed surveys must be avoided.

Why are unfinished surveys such a big thing? Let’s say we get our 2000 completed results. Maybe we don’t need to care about the participants who decided to quit mid-game?

Here is the biggest reason why we do need to care: They cost money.

No matter how you survey, with people in the fields, with voice calls, SMS, chat bots: generally every interaction, every person engaged costs you money.

A SMS with a question sent? Money. Ten minutes spent that went nowhere? Money. Sure, sometimes you can externalize the cost. But generally it will cost you something.

So, we want to avoid uncompleted surveys and the cost associated with them. Let’s look at how those situations come about.

Why would someone not complete a survey they started?

Why would someone decide not to finish the survey? In one sentence: because you’re losing their attention. Here are some examples of what I mean.

After replying to a question per SMS, the food on the stove starts burning. By the time the food is saved and on the plates and eaten, the survey is long forgotten.

A firework starts nearby and it’s simply more interesting than the survey.

During a survey with a chat messenger, the following question takes a while to arrive. By that time, the participant has already opened Facebook and is busy.

What those situations have in common: You lost their attention, the survey likely will never be completed.

Of course, you cannot decide how someone spends their time and where they direct their attention. But how you design your survey has a huge impact whether participants try to complete it or not.

Common Mistakes to Lose Attention

Over the years, we’ve seen surveys ruined by the same, very avoidable mistakes. Sometimes, participants were promised incentives for completed surveys and even with those highly motivated participants bad survey design can just CRUSH completion rate.

Here are my two favorites to lose every battle for attention:

Ask a never-ending onslaught of questions. Whenever someone proposes a survey with 20+ questions my head smashes the keyboard and I need to buy a new pair of glasses. How is any normal person supposed to get though that?

Of course, it’s possible to run long surveys, and some of our clients do with success, but completion rates will be low.

As much as you can, keep it short and sweet. If you have to conduct a long survey, give participants an idea where they’re at. A progress bar or “2 / 10” indicator is usually a great way to do this.

Being vague about what is a valid answer. Ever been on the phone with one of those automated IVR machines that just do not understand when you say YES–YES, I SAID YES? It’s the same way in any kind of survey, too: Nothing is more frustrating and makes you give up easier than when you want to reply but can’t.

The fix is simple: Make it obvious and easy how to reply correctly. We’ve seen this mistake so often that we wrote a separate article about that.

After deciding to avoid those two mistakes, let’s look at how you can design your survey to keep attention.

How to Boost completion rates

So, you have a short-and-sweet survey with easy to answer questions. Great, what else can you do to get and keep attention?

  • Make sure you do the survey at an appropriate time. Not lunch time. Not prayer time.
  • Notify people in advance.
  • Use incentives, such as Airtime Topup. This can backfire, but if it works, there’s nothing like it to make people finish a survey.
  • A sense of fun: The less it feels like work, the more it feels like play, the better chances you have of getting a completed survey.

But maybe the best way to help completion rates is to inject a sense of expectations and urgency. And how would you possibly do that?

Expectations and Urgency

As it turns out there is one BIG choice you need to get right at the beginning. And that’s which medium to use. It determines how high you can push completion rates.

Are you having a person ask questions in person? Will you use a voice call? Or are you sending out questions per SMS? Let’s go through the various options.

In-person interviews have a fantastic completion rate. That’s largely because we humans are generally uncomfortable disappointing others. So, if someone is asking us a question, we like to be nice and answer.

Of course, in-person interviews have plenty of limitations (they’re very expensive to start with) so let’s look at scalable options.

SMS Surveys

SMS Surveys are a popular option to ask many people the exact same question. SMS do drive urgency more than email and the cost per SMS is often much more affordable than a voice minute. Because of this, many people believe that SMS is a great option for large-scale surveys at the push of a button. But when you take completion rate into account, the picture is less clear.

The completion rate with SMS is typically much worse than with voice, and that comes back to managing attention:

  • SMS Surveys are essentially a chat, and SMS is a slow ping pong by design. Send a reply and switch over to your Facebook feed for a minute, or google that new recipe. And before you know it that survey is out of sight, out of mind.
  • SMS can be slow. We all have been in situations where we sent an SMS to someone, and they got it half an hour later. Perfect for losing attention.
  • There is no human touch. No imagery, or voice, and emojis are expensive. (Yes, there are MMS, but who uses those? They’re insanely expensive and often not available or at least not for automated systems.)

Learn how to launch your SMS Survey in 3 easy steps.

So, if you want to drive urgency with this inherently slow, detached medium, you’ve got to sprinkle in frequent reminders and you should think about incentives. And since every SMS costs money, adding reminders needs consideration, too.

Read more about Reminders and Airtime Topup.

Voice IVR Surveys

There are two reasons why Voice Surveys are much better at holding people’s attention.

First, it’s a phone call and it brings a clear expectation of a conversation. And as mentioned, we all like to please.

Second, you can ask the question in your own voice. Let me tell you: a human voice makes all the difference when it comes to engaging people.

For example, let’s say you want to survey Filipino farmers on their coconut yield this quarter. If you ask some of them to record the questions, they’ll speak in their local dialect and invariably build in a joke. When it’s “one of us”, people pay attention.

Read here for more best practices about Voice IVR and why retry calls are amazing. If you’re running humanitarian programs, check out our comprehensive IVR guide for non-profits.

WhatsApp Surveys

Surveying with WhatsApp is how an SMS Survey should work. Here are things you can do to capture and keep attention, that SMS just isn’t set up to do:

  • You can answer fast. Doh. Simple, right? But it makes all the difference! If you just replied with “I love peanut butter cupcakes” and instead of getting bored waiting for the next question and switching to Facebook, you get the next question right away—do you put jam on your PB?—then you’re much more likely to keep at it.
  • Images! Ah, the beauty! You can ask entirely different questions, like asking to identify things in the images, but images are also sooo good at breaking the boredom of endless questions.
  • Emojis. Again: more fun, less boredom!
  • Expectations. A WhatsApp chat, much more so than SMS, brings the expectations of a conversation, of quick replies. And because it’s fast, you’re more likely to finish.
  • Messages on WhatsApp are very cheap, and that means that reminders are very cheap.

Learn how to launch a WhatsApp survey in 3 easy steps.


  • The cost of completed survey matters. Half completed surveys waste money and must be avoided.
  • Grabbing and keeping attention is key to avoid uncompleted surveys.
  • Common “attention wasters” include endless series of questions and ambiguity how to respond.
  • How to keep attention: The best way is to drive urgency, and your choice of communication medium sets the groundwork.
    • SMS: low sense of urgency. Designed to be asynchronous. Slow, expensive.
    • WhatsApp Survey: Cheap reminders, fast. Way more fun with emojis and multimedia.
    • Voice: Comparatively high completion rate because you’re on the call and hear a human voice.

Read here how Unilever Indonesia verified many of the things we just discussed in this article.