Money Talks!

In grad school I heard stories about the days when grad students would be put to work polishing quarters or ironing dollar bills to send along with surveys. I’d thought that day had long since come and gone, but low and behold, I received a survey in the mail this past week with a crisp dollar bill as a proactive “thank you” for my response to a survey about my car. That same day, my boss shared the following article:

Want people to answer your mobile survey? Pay Them! – by Jacob Korenblum on ICT Works

The article shares examples of several studies that showed that incentivized responses were not statistically significant from responses that were not incentivized (obviously an important consideration for the sake of validity) – and made the claim that properly incentivized surveys saw significantly higher response rates.

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As a survey respondent, about a half hour in to taking the survey I’d been paid a dollar for, I started questioning whether that incentive had indeed been appropriate, but by that time I was starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and decided to persevere in the name of science (or at least evaluation)! Would I have responded to the survey if I hadn’t been paid a buck? Probably – but I see every survey as an opportunity to learn a new trick or two. None-the-less, the crisp dollar bill definitely got my attention (and I was ever so glad that envelope hadn’t gone straight into the recycling bin).

Over the years – here are some tricks that I’ve learned with regards to properly incentivize survey responses:

1. If you are asking people for responses that might take a little longer (e.g., 30 minutes plus) and you have limited funds for incentivizing responses, it seems better to give people a chance to get a larger incentive. With an incentive budget of $250 and need to get as many people as possible to take a survey that will take 30-40 minutes, I’d rather offer a chance to be entered into a drawing for an iPod than offer $5 for each response (esp. if there are extensive administrative costs associated with getting each respondent their $5 incentive upon survey completion).

2. If you over-incentivize you may run the risk of getting more responses than you think you are going to get. This is another reason why I’d argue that it is better to go with a drawing for a single incentive (or a few incentives) rather than offering a set-price incentive to all participants. Some of my colleagues once offered a flashlight to survey respondents, but somehow, news of the survey linked onto a “freebies” list and they had far more responses than they had anticipated. That type of scenario could be good if all respondents were members of the intended target audience for the survey and there had been an ample supply of incentives – however, it could also be really bad if it produced a lot of unhelpful data and larger number of respondents expecting incentives than there were incentives to give (and/or a budget to provide those incentives). For this reason, it is essential to strike the right balance in terms of incentives that will succeed in getting the right types of respondents to respond, but not create an incentive for others to jump on board.

3. Look for ways to streamline the incentive delivery process. The actual incentive is only part of the cost of providing an incentive, there are also logistical tasks that can add to the overall cost of offering an incentive. Many online survey programs have options for automatically delivering electronic gift cards to respondents upon survey completion. Services like this can save a lot of time in comparison to having to manually check to see who completed a survey and individually email or mail out gift cards or other incentives. See #5 below for even more things that can automatically (and freely) be shared with participants upon survey completion.

4. Sometimes a simple “thank you” may suffice. In cases where incentive funds are limited or non-existent it may be sufficient to make a sincere appeal to people for their help and thoughtful responses or feedback about a program, product or event that they care about – even if you have nothing tangible to offer. In this scenario you can lead with an appeal that makes people feel good about giving their time for what they perceive to be a worthy cause – the incentive is the warm and fuzzy feeling that they get for doing a good deed.

5. Think outside the box! There may be free or very inexpensive things that you can offer to survey respondents – e.g., special content related to a favorite show (e.g., an audio “thank you” from one or more of the stars of that show) or other digital freebies, (e.g. a poster they can download and print). Here’s a more extensive post on the topic of creative survey incentives: The Dino Does It! Advantages of Creative Survey Incentives.


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