research incentives motivate your audience to action

9 things you need to know about research incentives

Research incentives are proven to generate more responses to surveys. Even better, there’s no evidence that incentivising survey responses has any effect on the quality of the feedback. If you have the cash, it’s a no brainer.

At the same time, overall participation in surveys is actually declining. Shorter attention spans, instantly gratifying digital media and the public’s personal lives squeezed ever tighter. Incentives have stepped in and become the force to plug that gap and convince respondents to give up a bit of their time. But you have to approach it properly.

There are nine things you need to think about before jumping into cash-value research incentives with both feet.

Spendthrifts don’t succeed

Incentives generally yield higher response rates, and response rates generally increase with the cash value of the reward. The more you’re willing to spend on incentivising a respondent, the more likely you are to get a response.

Be careful though. It’s not a linear relationship. While you get more respondents for bigger incentives, the effect starts to diminish as you move towards higher and higher reward values. Measure your responses across multiple respondents and plot your response rates to figure out what motivates your audience without overspending.

Delay gratification, but make the reward clear

A client of ours in the market research field sends out a Love2shop Gift Card, but delays the loading of the card until surveys have been completed. This has two benefits to their scheme. Firstly, they make the reward real in the mind of their respondents by showing them the physical token that will form their reward. Secondly, the same card can be topped up more than once, increasing the chances a respondent will complete surveys in the future.

Use digital rewards where possible

Digital rewards take the burden of delivery and warehousing out of the question entirely. You can deliver the reward to someone’s phone or email inbox almost straight away, and there’s no worrying about anything getting lost in the post.

In turn, your overhead to run the research incentive is lower. You could use that fuel more incentives for respondents, or just enjoy the breathing room in your budget.

Test before launching

This is especially important if you’re committing to a particularly large survey. A sample test can illuminate what you should expect from seeking out a larger audience.

It can very quickly become apparent that there’s a flaw in your incentive level, or how your audience is responding to the incentive. Testing gives you breathing room to fix all that before you pour your money down the drain on a survey that brings the wrong audience in.

Budget for bigger surveys

Ideally you’d start looking at incentivising your respondents once the average response time hits 45 minutes. That’s the point where you’re going to start being able to gather significant enough amounts of data from individual respondents to justify incentives. That’s why a lot of companies start their incentives at a minimum of £20.

If a respondent is spending less than 45 minutes on a survey, scale your reward to fit that. However, it’s worth remembering, you’re scaling down the chance they’ll offer you a response. And, as we’ve pointed out, bigger rewards generate more responses.

Be wary of creating bias

Every survey or piece of research carries some bias, but be aware of how incentives might skew your audience. By using incentives, you disproportionately populate your survey response with people who react well to being incentivised.

How that affects the quality of responses isn’t well researched yet, but it’s possible you could see a change in who responds to your survey and what they say when they’re only responding for a reward. Especially if your goal is to get feedback from higher-earning respondents.

Emphasise the cash value

Focusing on the cash value of a research incentive makes it easier for respondents to associate their behaviour with a tangible reward. Talking in slightly more abstract terms about “gifts” doesn’t have the same effect. Whenever you’re mentioning your incentive, make mention of the incentive in cash-value terms for a more motivating message.

Don’t waste time and resources

If you want to draw from the same well and get renewed feedback from the same group of people, don’t lead with a reward if you didn’t offer them one initially. There’s little evidence that research incentives affect the rate of reply for previous respondents.

Studies have shown incentives are much more likely to convert refusals rather than returning respondents.

No budget isn’t fatal

The word incentive is just a word that we use to talk about inciting action. For us, that’s rewards. You can do that without rewards, it’s just much more difficult.

Target people who trust and rely on your work, or people who care about your industry for their feedback. A genuine desire to be helpful can overcome apathy if you have nothing in the budget for valuable research incentives. You can also use the information to create something of value to the audience. For instance, make it clear up front what you’ll be doing with the information you gather, and sharing the product with them afterwards. Create attachment and investment by targeting your audience’s interests, desires and their curiosity.

Test your survey with a smaller group before casting a wide net. Don’t try to be clever by undercutting the research incentive value. Make sure you’re clear about the cash value of the incentive early on, and scale it appropriately for the time you’re asking the audience to invest. Incentives work, but you have to hit the right notes to maximise their value.

Source: Singer and Ye, University of Michigan, “The Use and Effects of Incentives in Surveys,” 2012.