Making the Most of Mail Surveys

By: Sara Rubinstein

Many survey methods have gone digital these days, with researchers soliciting participant responses and collecting data though online portals or SMS messaging. But even amid these digital tactics, traditional mail surveys still function as a viable alternative. Depending on your audience and intentions, mail surveys can be an extremely useful research tool leveraged as a standalone approach or a physical component of a larger, digital-supported campaign.

Review the benefits of mail surveys and a few helpful tips for conducting mail surveys that obtain great results.

The Advantages of Mail Surveys

One advantage that mail surveys have over phone or online surveys is gaining the ability to reach traditionally low-response groups. Some audiences can be hard to reach, especially through digital-first methods. Low-income and elderly populations may experience difficulties accessing a computer or navigating a website’s user interface to successfully take an online survey.

Mail surveys can also appear more trustworthy, particularly when you take advantage of options like priority or certified mail. Rather than dealing with an unsolicited phone call or email, busy audiences—like professionals in healthcare and finance—receive a physical piece of mail that may contain personalized messaging, engaging visuals, or goodies like stickers and bookmarks that entice them to respond. This mail also serves as an in-person reminder to complete a survey; email and SMS surveys tend to get buried under incoming messages and easily forgotten.

Mail makes more room for detailed written or visual instructions that encourage full survey completion and lead to optimal results that are more accurate or reflective of respondents’ thoughts and opinions. If sent though priority or certified mail or designed with branding from a familiar organization, physical envelopes are more likely to be opened, read, and returned by recipients. Mail surveys simply have a better chance of connecting with the people who can provide you with the data you need to meet your research objectives.

  • Access varying types of hard-to-reach audiences
  • Offer options for low-income and elderly populations
  • Appear trustworthy through official, delivered mail
  • Create a physical reminder for survey completion
  • Encourage full survey completion
  • Increase overall survey response rates

What to Consider When Creating Mail Surveys

  • Formatting the Survey: When developing a mail survey, it is important to consider the layout of the questionnaire document itself to create a friendly user experience for respondents. Surveys should be no longer than a few pages and feature text that uses whitespace wisely. Avoid squeezing words too closely together, sizing text too small, or using a font that is difficult to read. Questions and answer options should be easy to understand and consistent in terms of sentence structure or wording. Skip patterns must also be clear. Spend time getting the format right so that accurate completion of your survey is as foolproof as possible for participants.
  • Designing Purposefully: There are endless ways to approach the design of your survey, but respondents have been known to react positively to the effective use of color. Although there are cost implications associated with creativity, consider incorporating colors, images, and graphic design elements into your mailing. There are opportunities to do this both internally throughout a survey and its accompanying instruction materials and externally on envelopes if desired. Recipients are also more likely to open and respond to mail surveys when they are tied to a familiar brand by a recognizable company logo, color palette, font, or design style.
  • Understanding the Costs: Managing the costs of mail surveys will be different from managing the costs of phone or online surveys. You’ll need to budget for postage and printing costs and take into consideration the time required to proof, assemble, and process mailings. This work can be done in house or with the help of a print provider or other subcontractor. If you prefer surveys be returned in the mail, rather than completed online using a mailed QR code or link, plan for additional costs that come with including prepaid postage for a business reply envelope (BRE).
  • Setting the Schedule: It’s also critical that you establish a schedule for mailing a survey and executing a campaign that fits well into your research schedule. Fielding a physical survey typically requires more time than fielding an online-only survey. You’ll have to plan around each of the stages involved in producing the survey materials, mailing the materials to participants, collecting the returned surveys, and reviewing and digitizing the responses as needed. The time it takes to print and mail may vary by location and mailing courier, such as USPS or FedEx. If you’re requesting audiences to return their submissions by mail, you must offer a reasonable window for completion and factor time for mailing and eventual data entry into your timeline.

As with all research methods, there are some limitations to utilizing mail surveys. But we shouldn’t overlook the many benefits that this tool can provide researchers. If done thoughtfully and effectively, mail surveys can help connect with hard-to-reach audiences, build trust among recipients, increase survey response rates, and serve as an alternative form of outreach when online or phone contact is not feasible.

If you’d like to learn more about conducting a successful mail survey or need help creating your next mail survey campaign, contact Greenwald Research.