Incentives Boost Research Response Rates and Data Quality - (Archived)

With the increasing difficulty in generating statistically valid response rates for certain types of market research programs, research experts frequently recommend offering an incentive as a means of boosting the number of survey participants.

This incentive decision is based on whether or not the survey subject matter on its own will be enough to motivate the target audience’s participation. Keep in mind that some target audiences may be easier to motivate than others. For example, citizens who are asked to participate in government-sponsored surveys may feel a sense of civic duty to cooperate. Members of trade associations may be motivated by the new benefits that could result from the survey.

Conversely, it’s often much more challenging to gain survey participation from corporate CIOs and other IT-related titles as well as management-level government employees, making incentives a very useful tool for these audiences. Researchers also use incentives with smaller populations that require a higher response rate for an acceptable sample size. Additionally, incentives typically help expedite research projects with tight deadlines as well as those involving lengthier surveys that, for example, require 20 to 30 minutes to complete.

Equally important, numerous studies have shown that incentives don’t create biases that can hurt the quality of information collected. Rather, in addition to reducing undesirable answers to survey questions, such as “don’t know” and “no answer”, incentives can result in lengthier answers to open-ended questions. In short, incentives create a feeling of obligation that motivates participants to be more thoughtful and thorough, resulting in higher data quality.

In the likelihood that your organization will need to include an incentive to boost your survey participation rate, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Align the incentive and research methodology: Pre-completion incentives,?? often a quarter, a dollar, or a small premium item such as a key chain,?? are used primarily with mail surveys. Post-completion incentives that are sent to the participants after the survey is conducted are effective for telephone and web-based methodologies. While some researchers use non-monetary gifts such as premium items, a charity donation, or entry in a prize drawing, monetary incentives such as cash cards and gift cards have proven to generate significantly higher participation rates. Not surprisingly, the higher the monetary value, the higher the response rate.
  • Select an incentive that’s relevant to your total population: Use a strong dose of common sense when selecting your incentive so as not to skew your research results. For example, an online music gift card may not appeal to older participants. The same goes for charitable donations,?? choose a non-profit organization with very broad appeal instead of one that could be viewed as niche or controversial in any way. Some researchers even offer incentive options of similar monetary value so participants can select their favorite.
  • Offer the incentive regardless of survey completion: Do not tell the participants that they must complete the survey to receive the incentive. Rather, let them know they’ll receive it even if they have to end the survey early or choose to not answer certain questions. Otherwise, you’re at risk that they’ll be less-than-honest or incomplete in some responses just to ensure they get the incentive.

Though an incentive is an added cost to a research program, the increased participation rate, faster fielding timeline, and higher quality data typically make it a very wise investment.


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