Using Incentives to Increase Survey Response Rates

In the midst of declining overall response rates to surveys, researchers are constantly searching for ways to improve these numbers. Increasing the proportion of the sample population that responds can save the researcher money and increase the amount of data that the researcher has to work with. More completed surveys also means a lower margin of error, allowing the researcher to make more reliable conclusions. One of the most widely adopted techniques for increasing survey response rates is to offer an incentive.

The success of a survey incentive depends on how well it appeals to the target audience and how well it is aligned with the unique requirements of the research project. Despite the amount of effort that usually goes into planning a research project, it is remarkable how little of that time is spent thinking about the incentive. This is surprising given the amount of money companies are often willing to spend to get responses to their survey, as well as the profound impact that an incentive can have on the makeup of the respondents.

Researchers have a choice about when to offer the incentive, either pre- or post-survey completion. For a number of reasons, pre-completion incentives are normally confined to mail surveys. Often this type of incentive comes in the form of a quarter or a trinket included in the envelope. This technique has been widely proven to increase response rates, with the amount of the incentive being directly proportional to the increase in response rate.

Post-completion incentives are more commonly associated with phone or Internet methodologies. The respondent is told upfront that they will be rewarded for taking the survey. When choosing a post-completion incentive, the following guidelines should be considered:

  • Incentives need not be large to be effective. Research shows that even a small incentive can go a long way towards increasing response rates.

  • Any incentive should pass a �common sense� test, and should not contradict the surveying company�s core values. For example, it does not make much sense for a medical insurance company to offer an MP3 player as a survey incentive for a questionnaire that targets a large population of senior citizens.

  • When the incentive is to enter a respondent�s name in a sweepstakes, the sweepstakes reward must be significant enough to get the potential respondent�s attention. This type of incentive structure has proliferated widely across a variety of mediums, and the lack of a tangible, immediate reward has led consumers increasingly to ignore this incentive scheme. To improve response rates significantly using a drawing or a sweepstakes, the surveying company must find a way to break through a tremendous amount of noise.

  • A general rule is that a post-completion incentive should always be offered to everyone who begins a survey, regardless of whether or not they are screened out before the conclusion. Researchers need to be careful about the way that incentives are applied, or risk creating certain biases that can jeopardize the survey results. Otherwise, the lure of an incentive can create motivation for respondents to find a way to finish the survey even if it means lying or giving incorrect responses, compromising the quality of the data that is collected.

  • Incentives must be equally relevant and desirable to the entire population. If an incentive appeals disproportionately to a given segment of the population, than this group is more likely to complete the survey, skewing the data. One way around this is to offer respondents a choice of incentives, and then monitor the characteristics of respondents who choose each reward.�

A survey incentive can be a useful and cost-effective technique for maximizing survey response rates when applied correctly. When administered properly, the up-front costs are negated by the increased response rate.�Many organizations, however, do not take the time to think about the implications of an incentive on their survey results. Researchers need to make sure that the incentive is aligned with both the target audience and the goals of the survey, and should be wary of the potential risks of creating bias.

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