In the mid-1980s, I was involved with one of the first studies into the economic impact of the biennial Adelaide Festival. We prepared a questionnaire seeking information on where people attending concerts, plays, etc had come from, and how much money they had spent. A pilot survey had simply left questionnaires on the theatre sets, and had an abysmal response rate.
It didn't take long to realize the problem. To return the questionnaire, the concertgoer had to take a pen to the concert, or take the questionnaire home to fill it in. Then they had to post it back. Perhaps a lot of people were willing to complete the questionnaire, or intended to do so, but it seemed that most of them never got around to it.
So we decided on a different approach. We stationed several interviewers at each entrance to the concert hall, where they counted the number of people going in - perhaps every 5th person, or every 10th, would be given a questionnaire and a cheap pen.
"What's this?" the audience members would ask, when a questionnaire and pen were thrust into their hand.
The interviewers only had time to reply "A free pen, and a questionnaire to fill in with it." About half the concertgoers entered the hall in the last 10 minutes, so the questionnaires had to be distributed very quickly.
While they waited for the concert to begin, and read their questionnaires, the audience members found that there would be large brightly-coloured postboxes in the foyer as they left the concert hall, and they could drop their questionnaires into the boxes - and the pens too, if they didn't want to keep them.
If they preferred to take the questionnaire home and fill it in later, we made that easy for them too. The questionnaire was a small 4-page booklet; by folding it in half, and taping or stapling one side, it became a business reply envelope.
The response rate jumped up to a much more acceptable level, of around 60%, though it varied a lot. Classical music patrons were the most reliable at returning their questionnaires, and jazz fans the least. Very few questionnaires came back in the mail: around 90% of them were dropped in the boxes as people left the concert. Even though we were giving away ballpoint pens, they were cheap ones, worth only a few cents each, and many people dropped them back into the postboxes. Because of the high response rate, the cost per completed questionnaire was surprisingly low.
- Dennis List