How to Create an Anonymous Online Survey. Ultimate Guide 2022

As you may know, respondents are more willing to share their honest opinion when they believe their identity is safe. Anonymity is particularly important in surveys on employee engagement and loyalty, as well as on different forms of deviant behavior. In this article, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of anonymous surveys, talk about how to protect respondents’ identity, and give some tips on how to create an anonymous survey.


      • What Is the Difference Between Anonymous and Confidential Surveys
      • What Kind of Projects Use Anonymous Surveys
      • Pros of Anonymous Surveys
      • Cons of Anonymous Surveys
      • When Not to Use an Anonymous Survey
      • How to Guarantee Respondent Anonymity
      • Recommendations on How to Create an Anonymous Survey
      • Recommendations on Building a Survey:
      • Phrasing the Questions
      • Phrasing the Hints to the Questions
      • Survey Structure

What Is the Difference Between Anonymous and Confidential Surveys

An anonymous survey means that the respondents’ data collected by researchers cannot directly or indirectly reveal their identity.

With a confidential survey, the researchers may collect personal information and automatically link the answers to various identifiers (email address, phone number, employee or client ID). The organization undertakes not to share confidential information with third parties. However, if needed, administrators can identify a respondent.

What Kind of Projects Use Anonymous Surveys

Employee surveys. Anonymous surveys are a useful tool for measuring employee engagement and loyalty to the company in the conditions when staff members may be reluctant to report problems in fear of putting their job, workplace environment or promotion opportunities in jeopardy.

Student surveys. Anonymous surveys also work well for collecting feedback in small groups where all people interact with each other one way or another — surveys of students, parents, trainees.

Research projects. Guaranteeing respondent anonymity is an important factor in surveys on sensitive topics, such as crimes, domestic violence, drug use, socially unacceptable behavior. Moreover, anonymity counterbalances the need for social approval which often motivates people to give the answers that will make them look good in the eyes of others.

Pros of Anonymous Surveys

Honest feedback. Responders are more willing to give honest answers if they believe that the survey is anonymous and the shared information cannot be used against them. Anonymity is essential for employee surveys when there is a risk of consequences for harsh criticism of the employer.

However, with the advancements in user data collection and analysis technologies, people are growing increasingly skeptical of anonymity promises. Therefore, to ease employees’ anxiety about sharing their opinions, it is important to foster feedback culture in your company. Otherwise, you will end up with deliberate overstatement.

Encourages engagement. When you ask employees or clients for feedback, you are demonstrating that you see them as valued participants in the process, whose opinion (whatever it may be) is taken into account in managerial decisions.

“Objective” perspective. As a rule, how well a new idea or suggestion is received depends greatly on who proposed it: the same idea put forward by a unit manager and a newcomer will be perceived differently. Anonymous surveys allow you to depersonalize ideas and opinions, and judge them on their own merits.

Cons of Anonymous Surveys

Skewed results. Anonymity gives respondents a sense of permissiveness, which may compel some of them to express destructive criticism just to blow off some steam. Unfortunately, during analysis, it is not always possible to differentiate actually useful information from bad attempts to blow off some steam.

Inability to provide targeted feedback. If a respondent reported an isolated issue that affects only them personally or a small group of people, you won’t be able to look into it further or address it directly.

Lack of respondent profile. The researcher might also be interested in reviewing survey results in the additional context of the respondents’ socio-demographic profile (gender, age, marital status). Such personally identifiable information makes people uneasy. That is why corporate surveys rarely include demographic components.

You should not put too many personal questions in marketing and social surveys, either. Do some preliminary pilot research to understand which characteristics are linked to what you are studying, and include just 4–5 most relevant questions in the final survey.

Inability to supplement results with previously collected data. When forgoing personally identifiable information, researchers give up the ability to analyze survey results over time or in conjunction with other interval data, such as the number of sick leaves, achievement of KPIs, overtime worked.

Inability to control who responds. When your survey is anonymous, you cannot resend invitations to those who have not completed it yet. That poses a risk that the survey will be ignored by specific cohorts (such as burned out or disengaged employees), which will skew the results. One of the possible remedies is offering a reward for participation which will be of interest to all respondents.

When Not to Use an Anonymous Survey

The choice to use an anonymous survey will be misguided if your goal is to not only collect feedback, but also engage employees in some kind of activity (for example, corporate culture events).

Use a non-anonymous survey to ask clients for an in-depth review of a product or service. That way you can respond to their review and establish a dialog with the client, potentially even turning them into a brand ambassador in the long run. Marketing experts have discovered that the clients whose problem was promptly addressed tend to become more loyal than those who have not experienced any issues at all.

How to Guarantee Respondent Anonymity

The link to the survey must be identical for all respondents and not include any superfluous parameters. You should also work out how you are going to collect the answers, since advanced survey builders can link corresponding email addresses and phone numbers to completed surveys.

Assess each question separately and in the context of the survey as a whole. Leave out the questions that can directly identify the respondent (for instance, name, date of birth, contact information). Pay special attention to question combinations that can cumulatively help deanonymize a person. For example, with employee surveys, it is enough to ask for the job title and the number of years with the company to figure out who the particular respondent is.

As an option, you can entrust a survey to an independent consultant or a marketing agency. They will collect and analyze the data, and then provide depersonalized results. If you have hired a contractor, do not forget to mention it in the invitation to the survey. It would be also useful to state that the main goal of your research is to make sound business decisions — not to learn the opinions of individual employees.

You can also use special software with a built-in anonymous survey option. When this feature is enabled, the survey creator gives up access to respondent identifiers and the ability to ask for this information at later stages.

How to Create an Anonymous Survey

In the invitation to the survey, clarify the goal of the research, the measures taken to guarantee respondent anonymity, how the collected data will be used and stored, who will have access to the data and who will be authorized to analyze them, what actions might be taken following the results of the survey.

Disable the collection of additional variables that are automatically pulled from your client database or site, such as email address, client ID, purchase amounts.

Word the questions with regard to how they can be answered. Some questions may require that a respondent describe personal circumstances or a specific conflict situation, which can make it easy to identify those involved.

If you already have an idea of the socio-demographic composition of the respondents, keep that in mind when phrasing personal questions. For instance, if you are asking respondents to indicate how long they have been with the company while knowing that less than 5% of your employees have been working there for more than 10 years, that significantly compromises anonymity of this cohort.

When possible, try to expand your sample and only ask for those socio-demographic details that will split respondents into equally big groups. That will give the respondents one less reason to doubt the anonymity of the survey.

As the respondents may not be so eager to answer open-ended questions, make them more specific: ask to name personal qualities, list actions taken, mention specific situations.

It is also helpful to leave notes next to open-ended questions explaining how the collected answers will be used: whether they will be combined into broad categories or, perhaps, quoted in a report.

Since anonymous surveys are often used to study sensitive topics, you should not neglect preliminary pilot research. Ask acquaintances or colleagues from the target audience to complete the survey and share their impression. Discuss with them whether they had trouble answering any questions, what they could have shared but decided not no, and whether anything made them doubt the anonymity of the survey.

Recommendations on Building a Survey

With an anonymous survey, you won’t be able to personally remind people to complete it or resend invitation to those who have not done it yet. That is why it is important to pay close attention to the survey design to make sure it does not present any challenge to the respondents.

Phrasing the Questions

Try to phrase questions as simply and clearly as possible. Do not use special jargon or academic terms. When designing survey questions, keep respondents of the lowest level of culture in mind.

Do not use abbreviations or acronyms, as they might be interpreted incorrectly or stand for different things.

The wording of questions should be specific and exact. Do not use clichés and abstract words (“many”, “few”, “often”, “rarely”, “normally”). Do not ask several questions in one. The questions should be unambiguous to prevent different interpretations.

Phrase the preamble, the question and the hints in neutral terms, so that you do not inadvertently lead respondents towards expected answers. Avoid modal verbs and phrases like “Do you believe that…?”, “Do you agree that…?”, or “Is it true that…?”. Do not use any questions that call for socially unacceptable answers.

Try to keep the questions short. If you want to give respondents some context or clues, include a preamble to the question.

Phrasing the Hints to the Questions

You should cover all possible answers to a question, but their number should be reasonable.

When listing hints, keep in mind that people tend to choose the first option more often than others.

In case of evaluative questions, hints should be well-balanced: two hints pro and two hints against. For example, “very good”, “good”, “neither good nor bad”, “bad”, “very bad”.

Hints should also be homogeneous: of roughly the same length, with the same level of detail, and based on the same characteristic.

Intervals of values in hints should not overlap. Make sure that each hint is unique and does not incorporate values of neighboring hints.

The “Do not know / No answer” option is a sign of respect towards respondents and leaves them room to refrain from answering. If too many respondents choose this option, this likely indicates that a question or hints have been phrased incorrectly or the answer is frowned upon.

Survey Structure

The survey starts with a preamble, where the researcher invites the respondent to complete the survey, outlines the goal of research, and how the collected data will be processed, used and stored. Put some simple questions first — that will ease the respondents into the survey and earn their trust.

The core part of the survey should start with questions applicable to all respondents and not just some select groups. The questions should be placed in the following order: questions about knowledge and awareness, experience, motives and relationships, and, finally, intentions. It is also important to take into account the “echo effect”, where an answer to one question may affect how the respondent is going to answer subsequent questions.