The ticklish issue of incentives

By: Heidi Dietzsch

A company is struggling with a certain problem and has approached you to find a solution. As a market researcher you are keen to face up to the challenge and start with the research process. You define a clear research objective and decide on the methodology, who the respondents will be and what information should be obtained. You design your sample and create a brilliant questionnaire.

You are ready to start on the data collection, that vital step in the research process, but you are faced with a major challenge. You need to find people who are willing to participate in your research. And not just anyone, these people need to fit very specific criteria. Also, you need a large number of willing participants because your client is expecting robust and authoritative data. Without respondents all the hard work you’ve done so far will be futile.

One way of overcoming this thorny conundrum is to offer incentives. The UK  Market Research Society describes an incentive as “any benefit offered to respondents to encourage participation in a project”.

Providing incentives, however, is not without controversy and raises some ethical issues. If certain standards are not followed correctly you risk being accused of bribery. Some researchers also wonder if incentivisation of respondents can skew data.[1]

Alderson & Morrow (2004) note that no persuasion or pressure of any kind may be put on respondents. It is therefore disconcerting that the offering of incentives might be perceived as coercive – or as exerting undue influence on potential respondents’ decisions about whether to take part in research. In particular, poor people might be vulnerable to possible coercion, especially if monetary incentives are involved. They need money and therefore their consent to take part in research might not be truly “freely given”.[2]

However, despite the above misgivings, the provision of incentives is a longstanding research practice. It is used to promote participation, as well as to encourage honest responses. Of course, it is also a way of thanking respondents for their time.

Contrary to what some researchers fear, many studies have found no support for the claim that data quality decreases when incentives are used. In fact, some studies show that data quality might even improve with incentives. For example, in a customer satisfaction study, a sample of respondents without incentives may be skewed towards dissatisfied customers who will be more willing to participate because they reckon they will be able to influence the research results negatively. For example, a person unhappy with her bank’s service could rate it overly negatively. By offering incentives, you may get a more balanced sample of customers, including those without an axe to grind.[3]

There are many ways in which respondents can be incentivised and it can be monetary or non-monetary. The value of the incentives will depend on the type of project, the data collection method (face-to-face, telephonic or online), the amount of time the respondent will spend taking part in the research, as well as the topic being researched. When research topics are very sensitive or personal in nature, the value of the incentive generally tends to be higher.

In terms of increasing response rates, studies have shown that cash is king and is most likely to pique the interest of potential respondents. Non-monetary incentives like thank you gifts are less successful in increasing response rates.[4]

Incentives have to fit the demographic and the interests of the respondents. For instance, if you are surveying millennials, the incentive should be something that they will find alluring. A pen with your company’s logo on will hardly entice millennials to take part in your study. An online gift voucher, however, will probably do the trick.

Offering incentives can sometimes have the opposite effect and this is something researchers need to be very careful of. When the incentive is too specific and will appeal only to certain people, you might alienate those who would’ve participated otherwise, even without incentives.

Studies that require the participation of high net worth individuals, professionals or people who are very unlikely to partake in research will need a different approach when it comes to incentives. Traditional rewards, especially monetary ones, will not work for this group. A good idea in these cases is to contribute to people’s charity of choice. Such a gesture will also appeal to people’s altruistic side.

Research agencies often need to conduct international studies and rewarding global respondents can be a logistical nightmare. Fortunately, the rise of digital payments such as PayPal, e-gift cards and virtual Visa and MasterCard make it possible to send incentives globally with speed and reliability. Digital rewards can be delivered instantly and can be easily tracked.[5]

Sometimes, however, no physical reward is necessary. The incentive that might hold the most value for respondents is the perception of value itself. When respondents believe that their input is important and will be used to make significant decisions, they are more likely to participate in research. Also, people are more inclined to provide honest answers when they feel that these answers can influence positive change.[6]

The decisions on whether or not to offer incentives and what the incentives will be should not be taken lightly. The correct use of incentives can contribute greatly to the success of your research project. However, it should be part of a well-executed process. If not – say for instance certain respondents don’t receive the promised incentive, or not at the agreed upon time – it can cause serious damage to a company’s reputation and will certainly deter any future respondents.