Five Guidelines for Using Incentives to Survey Participants

Surveys are designed to fulfill a need for specific information. Acquiring that information is solely based on survey participants. Although there is no magic to obtain 100% response rates, incentives are typical in many marketing research projects to help increase participation. Over the years, the public has become weary of taking surveys, so incentives are offered to increase response rates. However, there are times when incentives can hurt the quality of data by biasing the results. Here are some guidelines to follow to help determine if incentives are right for your survey.

  1. The type of survey matters. Is the survey a quick multiple choice/matrix survey? Or, are there open ends to elicit more qualitative data? Is it a trending project or ad hoc? Evaluating the type of survey and the level of participation that is needed from the respondent can help determine if an incentive is needed or not. Research shows that offering a reward can increase response rates the first time around, but after that response rates will decrease if there aren�t any rewards the second or third or fourth, etc., time around. So trending projects are a great example of when to avoid using incentives, as participants will expect an incentive each time.

  2. The type of respondent matters. If the respondent is unique or in any way rare in the population as a whole, you will want to consider offering an incentive to achieve a high-enough participation rate. So in general, orthopedic surgeons specializing in hip replacements will need to be incented where consumers who purchase dog food probably will not. The amount of incentive is also calibrated to the rareness of the population, so be sure to check the going rate before offering an incentive. Some respondents (for example government decision makers, managers in heavily regulated industries) are not allowed by their company policies to accept incentives, so be sure to check on that before offering the incentive as well.

  3. Are they existing or potential customers? If your survey sample consists of customers or potential customers, offering an incentive can boost a positive image for your business. These participants should be credited more value for their time, as they are more likely to give an insightful opinion. The happier the participants are, the more likely they will provide quality feedback instead of rushing through. Participants who are offered a generous incentive are more eager toward participating in a survey. People in general are happier when they feel like they are fairly compensated for their opinion.

  4. What are you asking from the respondents? Time. Surveys take time out of people�s daily schedule and usually are a nuisance, especially if the subject matter is not of interest to them. Participants should be rewarded fairly for their time. If a survey is long, a $10 gift card is not going to encourage participation or reproduce quality responses. Low-balling the incentive can backfire and offend the participant, potentially damaging the image of your business. Why take the risk? If you can�t budget or afford to give an appropriate incentive, don�t give one. This leads to our last tip�

  5. What is your budget? If your sample consists of thousands or even hundreds of respondents, the total incentive cost can quickly add up and potentially hurt your project and the bank. Small incentives such as $5 for each complete can soon become $5,000 if you choose the wrong incentive for a survey. In this case a sweepstakes or drawing is a manageable approach for a larger pool of participants. We at Polaris have seen greater participation when the sweepstakes prizes were a popular tech gadget, such as an Apple iPod or iPad!

Incentives have proven to increase response rates and following these simple guidelines can help determine if offering an incentive is suitable for your survey or not.

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