Which is More Effective: Paper-Based Surveys or Online Surveys?

Online Surveys vs. Paper Surveys

Online Surveys vs. Paper Surveys

The costs of paper, printing, and postage are all on the rise. Recent post office closures and rate hikes confirm that. Given these expense factors, many businesses are considering shifting some, if not all of their surveys to online. The costs savings alone by switching to online surveys are a significant motivator to make the change.  For some organization, the decision is a difficult one. Some target populations may not be receptive to strictly online surveys, making the transition a difficult decision. The debate between which is more effective: paper-based surveys or online surveys continues. 

How does each mode of survey research fare in your market? Can your research remain valid if you switch to one mode of survey research, but leave the other behind?  Take into consideration the following factors. 


  • Readability is important in any survey.  A paper survey in black ink offers a better resolution than you’ll find on any computer monitor making it easier for the respondent to read.  If your target population has visual impairment and cannot view text on a monitor, this is a plausible concern, and you will want to strongly consider keeping a paper survey option.
  • Survey design is another factor to consider. When it comes to paper surveys, there are limitations on space. If you are considering several open-ended questions, providing an ample amount of space for the respondent to complete their answer is crucial. 


  • Paper Surveys are notorious for taking a good amount of time to execute. Whether administration is in-person, mailed, or sent as an email attachment, speed is always going to be a factor. Time for the respondent to complete the survey and time to mail it back is going to increase the time needed to complete the survey research process. Data entry will then be needed to enter data into your database or survey software system. Furthermore, keep in mind, multi-page or complex paper surveys may require scanning to collect and organize data. If time is not an issue, paper surveys may be a viable option for you.
  • Online Surveys, however, can collect data in very little time. With many online survey software solutions, creating online surveys is simple and can be administered to your population via email or social media networks within minutes. Because of this rapid distribution, your sample population can respond almost immediately, and data is collected automatically. More sophisticated survey software systems provide real-time analysis tools so you can track the progress of your survey. 


  • As mentioned previously, paper surveys do have their design limitations. The design capabilities of a web-based survey are more flexible. Both survey modes can accommodate multiple choice questions, single-response questions, list questions, and grid questions. However, paper surveys are not able to handle drop-down boxes, interactive slider controls and star-rating controls, clickable maps and images, or multimedia files – the features that make the process more user-friendly and appealing to the respondent.
  • Online survey software also has more advanced logic features that are not available in paper surveys. Logic features allow you to customize the experience for the respondent, including routing, randomization, code masking, piping answers into subsequent questions, and code exclusivity.  Additionally, many online survey software providers offer triggered alerts, which are automated email alerts that can be easily inserted into the design of the survey that are designed to notify an organization of issues being raised by a respondent, or to confirm receipt of a completed response. 


  • The needs of you population is your main consideration. Your target sample may prefer just online surveys or just paper surveys, and sometimes, there may be a need for a mixed-mode for a diverse population – both paper and online surveys for the same survey research project. The appeal of saving money with online surveys is tempting, but if that survey is not reaching a target audience that prefers a paper survey, you are wasting your time and efforts.
  • Non-tech savvy respondents may not have access to a computer and therefore not have access to the Internet to complete an online survey via email or on social media networks. For example, if you are conducting research on patients in assisted living facilities with a target population of seniors with little to no access to computers, paper surveys are necessary. Additionally, respondents in rural, remote locations may have online accessibility issues. Examine your target population carefully. 

Many companies will benefit by transitioning from paper-based surveys to online surveys. However, paper-based surveys certainly still have their place in survey research and always will. Nevertheless, continued advances in technology may increasingly diminish that demand.

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