Respondent incentives

When you've exhausted intangible payoffs, it's time to reach for the payola. Sometimes you'll get lucky and you can find an incentive that's cheap for you to provide—such as a product upgrade or free month's service—and sometimes it will be a straight cash deal.

What makes a good carrot?

For non-cash rewards, your first thoughts may be of items related to your survey or industry. The challenge there is coming up with an item they haven't already bought for themselves. Instead, try to think outside the box—like the best gifts, it may be something the respondent wouldn't think to buy themselves:

  • Is anything hot and in scarce supply, such as the iPhone or Wii when first released? Even if the recipient doesn't want it themselves, odds are they have a friend or family member who does.
  • How about something experiential? Depending on the population, it could be anything from a dinner cruise to the Zero G.
  • While no incentive will appeal to everyone, try to avoid anything which is potentially distasteful (such as the steak a month club to a vegetarian).
  • Can you pair the reward with a cash equivalent or give them a choice of prizes?

Business populations are also better motivated through emotion than logic. If you're running a conference, you may be inclined to give away a free pass for next year. That's a great carrot if attendees are self employed or personally paying for their continuing education. However, if most of the attendees are sent by their employer, they'll be less motivated by your $1,500 pass than a $200 goodie. Likewise, offering a copy of the survey results is only a significant incentive if the respondent's company wouldn't be willing to buy a copy.

Divvying up your budget

Since the point of incentives is to increase your response rate, it's worth a moment to consider whether some of the funds may be more effective elsewhere. This could take the form of improving the respondent experience by getting help tuning the survey or using better technology. It could also be used for follow-up, such as hiring a temp to call non-respondents.

When you have the total you plan to spend on respondents, look at what you could spend individually, on a few items, or on one prize—a chance at a big item can be more motivating than a modest guaranteed amount (there's a reason we have the lottery).

Remember that what matters is the respondent's perception of the reward. I saw one project where they planned to offer $100 per person, which is almost an insult when asking a CEO to complete a 3 stage 60+ minute survey. However, that $100 could become a nice sign of appreciation when sent to the charity of the CEO's choice, or a tempting carrot if the budget for all 1,000 respondents was pooled into a few prizes.

Managing individual compensation

If you are providing individual payments, there are a few logistics:

  • Qualify respondents at the beginning of the survey, exiting them to a "sorry" page if they aren't part of your target population.
  • Make sure the survey cuts off at your budgeted number of completions, and check with tech support about exactly how the limit works. Some hosting services which cap your data file at a basic/gold/platinum subscription level will continue to allow submissions beyond that number. This can be great when you want to ransom additional data, but a serious problem when everyone is expecting a check.
  • To prevent duplicates, you'll have to either issue passwords or carefully clean the data.
  • If you don't want to deal with printing checks, an gift certificate is almost as flexible as cash.
  • If you're surveying a general population rather than customers or employees, a panel may make sense.

Need a Hand?

A little help can add a lot of polish—or just save hours and headaches:

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Thanks again for the excellent training sessions. You were able to keep it interesting and worth every penny. You have such a thorough understanding of the software. ~~sigh~~ to be that wise!

Susan L. Despot
California University of Pennsylvania