Wow four months into physical distancing due to COVID-19. It has been an adjustment for us all and I hope we have all adjusted nicely and are doing well.

Recently I spoke about the challenges of community engagement at a time when we are meant to be keeping our distance. The obvious solutions lay understandably with modern technology and its provision of an array of online tools.

In my world surveys are an integral part of the data collection tool kit so whether to use them or not is rarely the discussion. What does come up frequently is how they should be administered. The common ways to administer the surveys are face to face, telephone, postal with return envelope, and on-line. From my experience clients tend to prefer telephone or face to face.

The question is which is most effective and efficient. Here are the pros and cons of the common methods used for administering a survey.

By Andrea Kanaris,
National Technical Leader, Social Impact Assessment

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02 9493 9500




Face to Face

  • Ability to assist those with low levels of literacy
  • Able to clarify questions
  • If computer used while administering the survey, there are no additional data entry costs
  • Reduced need for follow up
  • Labour and time intensive incl travel, data entry and follow up
  • Costly due time and resourcing
  • May require interviewer training
  • Interviewer bias
  • Participants may be reluctant to answer personal or sensitive questions
  • Inconsistency in quantitative and qualitative data set if questions are not administered the same
  • Low response rates
  • Increased costs in coordination of meeting times when not door knocking or on the street


  • Removes need for travel
  • Ability to outsource to specialised service provider
  • No separate data entry
  • Reduced need for follow up
  • Reduces interviewer bias
  • Ability to assist those with low levels of literacy
  • Labour and time intensive incl travel, data processing and follow up
  • May require interviewer training
  • Long lead in times for use of contractors
  • Moderately resource intensive
  • Low response rate


  • Large numbers of surveys to be administered at one time
  • Relatively low cost of distribution
  • Provide anonymity thus increasing validity of responses
  • No access to computer required
  • No computer skills required
  • More time spent on test survey
  • Requires time spent collecting and maintaining mailing list
  • Mail outs are time consuming and resource intensive
  • Follow up reminders are time consuming
  • Data entry, coding and analysis would be time consuming and costly
  • Requires literacy level sufficient to respond unaided
  • Formatting of information to reduce confusion is time consuming
  • Low response rate


  • No delays in sending survey via email
  • No manual data entry
  • Access to real time data and activity logs
  • Large numbers of surveys distributed at low cost
  • Data entry and analysis is streamlined
  • Secure servers allow for collection of ‘sensitive’ information
  • Provide anonymity thus increasing validity of responses
  • Ease of completion for user
  • Users can respond when convenient to them
  • Surveys can be printed if desired
  • Follow up reminders via email
  • Cost and labour efficient
  • Location is removed as a barrier for participation
  • Significant reach as internet access increases rapidly
  • Increasingly higher rates of response
  • More time spent on test survey
  • Requires time spent collecting and maintaining email address list
  • Requires access to an electronic device and internet connection
  • Requires respondents to have email and or social media accounts they check regularly
  • Requires basic skills in using modern technology
  • Some limitation on amount of background information provided

In my experience online surveys yield higher response rates without the need to spend additional time or cost to set it up. The time spent testing your survey will be done with whichever method you adopt. Some of the negatives can be overcome by providing enough information upfront and with good planning and using alternatives to email to reach participants.

A few tips to help keep the response rate high:

  • apply the KISS principle and keep it simple stupid. Short snappy and to the point surveys will lead to more responses;
  • circulate via email and provide as much information as you can without being cumbersome. Enough to allow them to participate in a meaningful way;
  • send follow up emails and reminders;
  • use social media such as community noticeboard pages on Facebook to provide links to your survey; and
  • use a tool that allows you to design a survey that can be viewed on a smart phone, tablet or desktop. The easier it is for the user the more likely you will get a response!

Remember that in 2020 in Australia we have more mobile phones than we do people. So why not let them do the heavy lifting for you!

Even my mum uses a smart phone and a tablet, and she even Facetimes. I have no doubt that even with her poor eyesight she can fill out a survey be in on her phone, tablet or a desktop.