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

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Given the rising costs of paper, printing, and postage, many businesses are shifting towards online surveys over paper surveys. The costs savings alone by switching to online surveys are a significant motivator. However, the decision to change can be a difficult one; some target populations may not be receptive to strictly online surveys. 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.


Paper surveys are likely to take longer to execute

Whether the survey is administered in person, mailed, or sent as an email attachment, speed will be a factor. You also need to consider the time it takes for respondents to complete the survey, and mail it back. Data entry is then needed to add the responses to your database or survey software system. Multi-page or complex paper surveys may require scanning to collect and organize the data. If you have the time and capabilities to undertake a paper survey, and it’s more suitable for your target audience then it could be a viable option.

Online surveys can collect data quickly

With a reliable online survey software solution, creating online surveys is simple, and they can be distributed to your respondents via email or social media within minutes. Your audience can respond immediately, and the data is collated together automatically. Sophisticated survey software systems will provide real time analysis tools so that you can track the progress of your survey.

Survey Design

Space limitations for paper surveys

When it comes to paper surveys, there are limitations on space, which are less of an issue for online surveys. If you are considering using several open-ended questions, providing enough space to answer them is crucial.

Question types

Both paper and online surveys can accommodate multiple choice questions, single-response questions, list questions, and grid questions. However, paper surveys can’t handle drop-down boxes, interactive slider controls and star-rating controls, clickable maps and images, or multimedia files. These are the features that make the survey process more user-friendly and appealing to the respondents. Read about how to write effective survey questions here.

Advanced logic features in online surveys

Online surveys can utilise advanced logic that’s not available in paper surveys. It’s possible to customise the experience of respondents by using routing, randomization, code masking, piping answers into subsequent questions, and code exclusivity.

Instant notification for online surveys

Additionally, many online survey software providers offer triggered alerts. These are automated email alerts, which notify the organization when certain responses are given, or when the survey is completed.

Target Audience

Your target audience should be the main concern

It’s important to consider the most suitable survey method for your potential respondents, and tailor your survey distribution method to their requirements. Examine who you are trying to reach with a survey, and assess whether a paper or online survey is likely to be more appropriate.

Online surveys can be shared easily

You may be able to reach more respondents, more efficiently with an online survey – you can distribute the survey to thousands of people via email invitations or sharing the link online.

Paper surveys can be more accessible

Some audiences might not have easy access to a computer or a reliable internet connection – therefore paper surveys are more suitable. At events a paper survey can also be a better way of gathering immediate feedback.
A paper survey in black ink offers a better resolution than you’ll find on any computer monitor, making it easier for respondents to read. If your target population is visually impaired and can’t view text on a monitor, then a paper survey should be considered.

Multi format surveys

For a diverse population, a mixed mode survey that uses both paper surveys and online surveys can increase response rates. Learn more about how to increase survey response rates here.

Many organizations 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. To assess which survey is most appropriate for your project you need to consider your target audience, your time and resources, and how complex the questionnaire needs to be.

Survey software for online and paper surveys

Snap Surveys software has the flexibility to create and distribute paper surveys, online surveys, or undertake a multi-mode research project and collate the data from paper and online responses ready for analysis.

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