Quality & Quantity

, Volume 48, Issue 4, pp 2069–2088 | Cite as

Survey topic and unit nonresponse

Evidence from an online survey on mating
  • Doreen ZillmannEmail author
  • Andreas Schmitz
  • Jan Skopek
  • Hans-Peter Blossfeld


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.


Topic interest Unit nonresponse Online survey   Web-generated process data Online dating Success bias 



The work for this article is based on the project “Das Internetals Partnermarket” (The Internet as a Partner Market), which is supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG). We would also like to thank our cooperation partner for making the data available for scientific purposes. We thank Thorsten Schneider, Markus Zielonka and Melanie Scholz for helpful comments and suggestions as well as William Tayler for native speaker advice.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Doreen Zillmann
    • 1
    Email author
  • Andreas Schmitz
    • 1
  • Jan Skopek
    • 1
  • Hans-Peter Blossfeld
    • 2
  1. 1.University of BambergBambergGermany
  2. 2.European University InstituteFlorenceItaly

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