1530.0 - ABS Forms Design Standards Manual, 2010  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 25/01/2010  First Issue
   Page tools: Print Print Page Print all pages in this productPrint All  
Contents >> Survey Letters >> Survey Letters-Common Content

Common Content

While aspects of these standards will be of interest to those outside the ABS, they were developed for internal use. As such, some information contained in these standards will not be applicable to an external audience. ABS staff should refer to the Corporate Manuals database for the most recent version of these documents, as some details (names, phone numbers etc.) have been removed from the online version.



It is important for the ABS that the many survey letters produced have a common theme. To achieve this it is necessary to ensure as much common content as possible. Unless stated otherwise the information which follows applies to all letters. Use this document as a general guide and then check the relevant chapter for the specific needs of each letter type. These standards apply even when a survey is user-funded and co-branding with other organisations is used.

All letters should be designed with the following in mind:
  • appropriate language should be used;
  • important elements should be stressed; and
  • the 'message' should be plain and consistent with that of other letters.

Letter content should be kept as brief as possible. Include only what is necessary, to ensure the provider is able to complete the task set. For example, detailed instructions which relate to the completion of the form, or specific definitions relating to the topics covered are included within the form and are therefore not needed in letters.

Survey letters should also be persuasive. Respondents need to be convinced to participate in ABS surveys willingly, quickly and accurately. Towards this end, these standards have been based in part on the psychological principles of social influence developed by Groves and Cialdini (1991).

The name and address of the respondent should be included wherever possible, however, if this information is not available, or is impractical due to bulk mailings, a salutation should not be used. An obvious sign to the respondent of unimportance is to begin a letter with "Dear Respondent/Citizen/Resident/Friend". Letters addressed in this manner are more likely to be disregarded by the respondent as a standard junk mail letter.
Collection reference

The title of the collection should in most cases be at the top of the letter. It should follow a salutation if there is one. The reference line should be 12 point, bold, in leading capitals and centred. The collection title should also contain the survey reference period.

For example :

"Economic Activity Survey 2005-06"

Purpose of the survey

The purpose of the survey should always be included. Not only does the purpose statement provide information about the collection, it is a chance to explain to the respondent that the request for data is important and useful to the community. It should be a brief, unbiased explanation of how the information collected is going to be used and for what purpose.

The purpose statement in letters should always be different from the purpose statement on the front of the corresponding form and for each subsequent letter. This is important to ensure that respondents read the information on the front of form and subsequent letters. If respondents see that the purpose paragraph is exactly the same as one they have just read, it is likely that they will skip it and also assume that the rest of the information is simply repeated and not worth reading.

Respondents are more likely to comply if they get something in return (the principle of reciprocation). The content of the purpose statement is also a chance to increase respondents' intrinsic motivation (and likelihood of complying) by explaining the long term value of the survey and if possible, the effects of the information collected relative to the respondent. This can be tailored to individual collections or sub-groups of the survey population.

For example:
    "The information collected is used by the small business community and government policy makers to base important decisions, which have the potential to directly or indirectly affect your business."

If appropriate, the purpose paragraph should also mention that other similar businesses (or organisations, households, people etc.) have been selected. Studies have shown that respondents should be more likely to comply if they perceive that others similar to themselves would comply. This principle is based on the theory that with compliance comes social validation.

For example:
    "Your business, and many similar businesses, have been selected to represent..."

Respondents are more likely to comply with requests that are perceived as being a rare (scarce) opportunity to participate. A rare opportunity may cause the respondent to feel as though they are privileged to have been given the opportunity to represent others, and may be a form of incentive. If the survey is a one-off collection, mention of this in the purpose is important.

For example:
    "This is the first time that the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has conducted this type of survey."

Collection authority

All letters must include a statement of authority. The strength of this statement will increase from the basic statement in the covering letter to information about the Statistician's Power of Direction in the second and third reminders. The version required for reminder letters will vary according to the desired overall message and number of reminders being used.

All letters must include a statement of confidentiality. As the confidentiality of our data is integral to the functioning of the ABS, this is a very important part of any letter. In early letters such as covering letters.

For example:

    "Your completed form remains confidential to the Australian Bureau of Statistics."

The statement varies for the second and third reminder letters. At this point the ABS is attempting to overcome objections to completing the survey form. The statement informs the respondent of the penalties ABS staff face for any breach of confidentiality. The strength of the statement of confidentiality will vary (like the collection authority statement), according to the message the ABS wishes to send. Some surveys have complex confidentiality issues, for example when 'passive' confidentiality is used or the respondent's data may be matched with other information. Explaining these issues in detail may be counter-productive so be careful.
Help available

Information about available help should be included for two reasons. Firstly, the respondent should be able to call the ABS for assistance if they have misplaced their form, or if they need help filling-out the form. And secondly, respondents are more likely to comply if the request is coming from someone whom they like. The offer of help is an automatic trigger for 'liking', so conveying that the ABS is approachable is important. The freecall number should be bold and should be kept all on one line for ease of reference.

For example:
    "If you have any queries about this survey or require assistance in completing the form by the due date, please contact the ABS on freecall 1800 XXX XXX."

Enhancing the principle of 'liking' further may be achieved by adding the office hours during which help may be obtained. This information is especially useful to add if the office hours have been extended for that particular survey, to ensure respondents actually know they can access help outside normal business hours. Remember to include what time zone the hours refer to.

For example:
    "If you need help completing the form or would like to discuss this matter further, please call 1800 XXX XXX (freecall). Our freecall service operates Monday to Friday from 7:00am to 6:30pm EST to assist with your enquiry."

Thank you

Saying 'thank you' is one of the easiest ways to indicate to the respondent that their time and efforts are appreciated. Apart from simply being a polite inclusion of any request, 'thank you' is also a form of social exchange. The 'thank you' paragraph thanks the respondent for their time and consideration and invokes a feeling of importance by suggesting that the survey is only successful with their help.

For example:
    "I would like to thank you in anticipation of your prompt response to this important request for information."

Signature authority

All letters should include the signatories' name and a real-looking signature. It is also important for the "Australian Bureau of Statistics" to be written under the survey manager's name in the signature block. The perception of authority and legitimacy are of utmost importance when the respondent is considering the action to respond, and the name of the organisation will have a stronger impact than the collection area. Also remember that ABS job titles might not mean anything to the respondent, so to convey appropriate authority the title needs to actually sound important.

The signature block should generally come straight after the main body of the letter. When there is no salutation, there should not be a closing in the manner of e.g. "Yours faithfully" either. A relationship with the respondent has not usually been established at this point so this personal approach is inappropriate and also takes up space. An individually addressed letter may use "Yours sincerely", which is the standard corresponding formal closing.

The date is often the first point of personalisation of the cover letter. It is an element of all professional letters, and should not be excluded from a survey cover letter just because of variable mailing dates. It is also a useful point of reference for the respondent. The correct date is the date the letter is 'signed', not the date the letter is despatched. The date should be included at the bottom of the signature block under "Australian Bureau of Statistics".

For example:


Because postscripts are one of the most visible aspects of a letter, they are a good place to have important information that the survey manager wishes the respondent's attention to be drawn to. The recommended use of a postcript is to refer to the ABS website or a web address specific to the survey, if this address is meaningful. Alternatively, the postscript can be used to reiterate thanks for participation.

For example:

P.S. The ABS makes available a wide range of useful statistics free-of-charge, thanks to the data provided by people such as you. For details, see the ABS website, www.abs.gov.au.

Groves, R.M. and Cialdini R.B., (1991) Toward a useful theory of survey participation, American Statistical Association, Proceedings of the Survey Research Methods section, 88-97.

Previous PageNext Page