To pay or not to pay: using "incentives" in survey research

The use of incentives in research is widespread. Respondents frequently receive something in exchange for giving their views. But often the incentive is a relatively small amount of cash. Nobody ever became a millionaire from completing surveys.

Increasing the value of incentives is likely to have a marginal impact on the level of survey response i.e. raising an incentive from £1 to £2 has little impact in increasing the number of completed interviews. Similarly if a prize draw is offered as an incentive the actual level of the prize has little impact on response. A £500 prize draw will be almost as effective as a £1000 prize draw.

The term “incentives” seems a bit of a misnomer for these types of payment. Extrinsic rewards like cash or gifts have minimal value when it comes to motivating respondents. Respondents do, though, appreciate the gesture. Rewards should be therefore be positioned carefully as a thank you rather than as payment.

Instead of extrinsic rewards we should be looking at how people are intrinsically motivated, how we can get them to complete surveys because they are getting something out of it other than payment. How can we make the invite and survey as interesting as possible? Can we appeal to people’s altruism? By explaining the purpose of the survey and what we are planning to do with the results we treat respondents as equals and, in turn, they are more likely to help. We should aim to make respondents feel valued.

Appealing to intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations also improves the quality of response. Intrinsically motivated respondents are more likely to give considered answers. If people are only completing surveys for money they will tend to give little thought to their answers, finishing as quickly as possible and “gaming” the system  to increase their rewards.

An alternative incentive to monetary reward is providing feedback on results from surveys. If people have given you their opinions on a certain subject they are probably interested in seeing what other people think. This type of approach is more common in B2B research where respondents are particularly interested in what other people like them think and do and where small financial incentives have little impact.

Other non-financial incentives that can work well in consumer research are providing access to special events, either on or offline, and sneak previews of new products. These types of reward succeed in making respondents feel special and valued.

When designing surveys don’t rely on cash to attract respondents, be more creative. There are other, better ways to motivate people to complete your questionnaires. Don’t be afraid to use them.

Related posts:

Optimising online survey invites

Further reading:

Hear me out: Let's give research reports to respondents (Gary Austin, Research Live, January 2011)

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