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Surveying Tips for Recreation-Based Impact Analysis

March 28, 2021

It is fair to say that we are all pretty surveyed-out. With surveys showing up on my receipts, in my inbox, and my phone, my knee-jerk reaction is most typically “not right now”. But surveying is one of the key tools we rely on when conducting economic and fiscal impact analyses, so we have to get creative. Oftentimes we are surveying visitors to a particular event, destination, or recreational trail to find out more about where they are coming from, what they are doing there, and their spending behaviors. All of this information is then used as inputs in the analysis to better understand how the issue at hand is impacting the local economy.

There are many ways to distribute surveys but depending on the situation it might not be possible to do so in person. For example, this last year we were challenged by not being able to conduct in-person intercept surveys due to COVID-19 for an analysis of the Harriet Tubman Byway in Maryland. Similarly, a few years back mother nature messed with us when we were trying to conduct in-person surveys on a snowmobile and cross-country skiers (not enough snow in Vermont, can you believe it!).  No matter the reason, we have learned some tips about how to get a good response rate to surveys that are primarily being completed online:

Use multiple pathways to distribute the survey to access the greatest representation of people

  • Send to your current networks:
    • Send the survey link to existing networks and distribution lists with an explanation of what it is and why they should take the time to complete it.  Use existing email newsletters, social media, or regular communication tools that your constituents are familiar with.
  • Use your partners:
    • Ask partner organizations to vouch for the survey and distribute to their contact lists. By having a trusted partner send and post the material on your behalf, you’re likely to reach a larger audience and gain trust.
  • Meet people where they are:
    • Social media and emails are not going to be right for everyone, so think about other ways that information is distributed to large groups of people. For example, sending information about the survey (with a link or QR code) out with ATV registration information, posting information about the survey at a local community space or outdoor outfitter, and providing an easy link for smart phones at the trailhead.
  • Consider novel sources of data to supplement the research:
    • With every passing year there are more and more ways to gather data about people and their behaviors. Consider whether there may be a benefit to accessing information that is available that has been collected from cell phones, GPS systems, photo sharing apps, fitness watches and more to add to your understanding of recreation in your region.

Increase your response rate by humanizing it

  • Be clear about what it is for and why they should do it:
    • Using very clear and direct language, explain why the survey is being completed, why it is important for them to fill it out, and what is in it for them. Drawing clear connections between the benefit of completing the survey to the person that is spending the time will encourage greater participation and willingness to assist.
  • Ask others to advocate for the survey:
    • Similar to asking your partners to distribute the survey, ask that they also begin to advocate for it in other ways that will highlight the importance of the survey to the community. Consider a press release, announcement at a meeting, or person to person encouragement to increase participation.
  • Provide rewards or incentives for participating:
    • It is obvious but having incentives for participating can be a great way to increase participation. Depending on the purpose of the survey and who will benefit from the information, there may be businesses or organizations that are willing to donate a prize or giveaway.  We have seen great success in offering an incentive for participation in terms of increasing the overall number of responses.

Expect limitations in the data and be prepared to adapt

All in all, using an online survey is one approach that can be used alone or in coordination with other information collection efforts to gain insights to serve an economic and fiscal impact analysis. While an online survey is less expensive and time-consuming compared to an intercept survey, there are still some limitations that should be considered and mitigated.

  • Difficulty confirming participant segment:
    • With an online survey, you don’t have the ability to fully control who is responding to the survey to ensure that it is someone who has actually been to the trail or place in question. There are some controls, questions, and distribution methods that will help with this, but it can still be a challenge.
  • Possibility of multiple responses:
    • Unless it is a very controversial issue, it is pretty unlikely that someone will take the survey multiple times, but it could happen. Some online survey providers will provide safeguards against this.
  • Respondents are self-selecting:
    • With an online survey it is sometimes difficult to get a good general population representation. If the survey is only sent out to people that have requested information about a particular trail or who have joined a “friends of” group, they may be more invested and interested in the issue at hand compared to the rest of the population.

Surveys are an invaluable tool for economic and fiscal impact studies and having good data to use in our models is critical to being able to provide accurate analyses.


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