Survey Topic and Unit Nonresponse – Evidence from an Online Survey on Mating

Zillmann, Doreen, Schmitz, Andreas, Skopek, Jan, and Blossfeld, Hans-Peter


Survey topic as a factor influencing participation rates is becoming increasingly important, as there is a growing trend in social science research for surveying specific populations about specific topics. Previous research has shown that respondents with high topic interest (often referred to as salience) are more likely to participate in surveys. However, the identification of mechanisms that affect respondents’ interest in a survey topic has been largely neglected in research literature. We present an explanatory model of participation that conceptualizes topic interest as a function of an actor’s relational position in a particular social setting. To illustrate the relationship between survey topic and participation behavior, we use an online survey on mating conducted on the user population of an online dating site. For our nonresponse analysis we use web-generated process data, consisting of profile and interaction data, which describe all units of the sample frame. Thus, comprehensive information is available for both participants and non-participants of the online survey on an individual level, enabling a particularly accurate analysis of nonresponse. Results show that the probability of participation varies according to a user’s chances of success on the mating market. Users who can be described as less attractive (e.g. older people, less educated men, overweight women) show a higher probability of participation, which we explain with the mechanism of topic salience. We conclude with general implications regarding (1) the relationship between survey topic and survey participation and (2) the potential of web-generated process data for (online) survey Research.

In: Quality & Quantity, 48 (4), 2069-2088.