Using Incentives To Increase Response Rate

All too often, companies spend an excessive amount of time perfecting their survey and not enough time considering how to get respondents to complete the survey. But without the right number of willing participants, there are essentially no usable results. Knowing what incentive to offer and how to offer it can allow you to stretch your research dollar. In some cases, the cost of the incentive can even pay for itself in the end since a higher number of completed surveys will produce a lower margin of error. This will bring the researcher to more reliable conclusions, and therefore more successful research.

Why should anyone be interested in taking your survey? Some motivation may come from the sense of belonging to the organization sponsoring the survey, or out of feeling a civic duty to respond. Those who are either extremely satisfied or extremely dissatisfied are more likely to want to share their input. In most cases, however, the willingness will not come that easily.

�Over the last several years the public has become less willing to participate in or complete surveys, of any type. This response rate has a direct effect on the quality of conclusions and results that can be drawn from the collected survey data� -Kaplan and White 2002

As a researcher, you have a choice regarding whether the incentive will be given pre- or post-survey completion. For example, mail surveys can include a dollar inside the envelope. In pre-survey completion, the incentive is given to the potential respondent before he or she agrees to participate with the aim that this will cause them to be more likely to do so. While some researchers may think of this upfront payment as too risky, more seasoned researchers realize the profoundly positive affect this can have on response rate.

�Prepaid incentive research suggests that a prepaid incentive produces a sense of reciprocal obligation.� -Kaplan and White 2002

Examples of post completion incentives include a $25 check upon completion, a gift card or a chance to win a more expensive prize. Be careful with the way incentives are applied and be cognizant that surveys with mandatory questions coupled with an attractive incentive may yield �falsified responses,� a result of uncommitted respondents whose main goal is to obtain their reward. Watch for conflicting answers, patterned responding and the existence of falsely qualified completes that may have been lured in by an appealing incentive.

Naturally, the more appealing the reward, the higher the response rate will be. But also note that even the most enticing incentives will not lower the attrition rate if the survey is too lengthy. Under some circumstances, respondent fatigue may be unavoidable even with the finest motivation.

In some ways, incentives can act to reduce bias because they tend to generate responses from everyone (not just the most satisfied or dissatisfied people who typically want to be heard). Keep in mind, they can also have an adverse effect. Incentives should be appropriate for the study and should be carefully chosen. Promising product samples may bias the results because respondents can interpret this as pressure to answer in favor of the company offering the incentive. Incentives should also be equally as valuable to all respondents in order to avoid biased results. If the prize doesn�t appeal to a broad range of the population, the data will be skewed because a certain demographic will be disproportionately represented. It should also be portrayed as a compensation for the respondent�s time rather than a reward for expressing a certain viewpoint, as this too can lead to biased results.

It may not always be necessary to offer an incentive. Response rates tend to vary depending on the audience, topic, length of survey and methodology. If you suspect that many people consider your topic interesting, or that they would feel that the results will have a positive impact on their lives, then you may succeed without having to offer an incentive. However, in most cases, the results benefit the researcher only, and an incentive should be strongly considered. Sometimes even a non-monetary incentive such as a copy of the report�s results can be enough to draw in participants. Be mindful when conducting b2b research that employees may not be allowed to accept incentives because of company policy or because of a contractual relationship. In this case, a donation to a nonprofit organization may be considered as a substitution for a more customary incentive.


Kaplan, Aljoscha and Glenn White. 2002 “Incentives in a Business Survey: A Study in Improving Response Rates.” Joint Statistical Meetings- Section on Survey Research Methods: 1756-1761.

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