February 20, 2024

Incentives Matter

Incentives are one of the market research costs that cause debate. “Is this expense really necessary? After all, our customers want to give us feedback.” The unequivocal answer is, “Yes, incentives matter.” For better or worse, we, as an industry, have taught participants that we will reward them for sharing their valuable feedback. Voluntary surveys often attract only a subset of a company’s customers, and the use of incentives has become essential to encourage a more comprehensive and representative response from a diverse range of participants.

But don’t take our word for it!

A comprehensive meta-analysis by Singer and Ye (2013) delved into 108 studies across various modes, exploring the use and impact of incentives on survey participation. ( Their findings, now an industry standard with over 600 citations, demonstrate that offering incentives significantly boosts response rates compared to not offering any.

The Psychology of Incentives

While incentives constitute a modest percentage of the overall project cost, their effectiveness lies in creating a value exchange between researchers and participants. This acknowledgment of participants’ time and effort fosters goodwill, encouraging more active engagement in the research.

When we conduct mail surveys, we include a $2 bill with the survey. The $2 bill is unusual, catching attention and creating value exchange with participants. However, in communicating about the incentive, never imply that you are paying participants for their opinions; instead, it’s a small token of appreciation for their time.

Benefits of Incentives

Beyond the mere enhancement of participation rates, the benefits of offering incentives extend to cultivating a sense that participants’ opinions are valued. This, in turn, heightens their willingness to provide thoughtful responses. Incentives entice individuals who might otherwise bypass the survey, ensuring a more representative and diverse sample. This inclusivity significantly bolsters overall data quality by capturing broader perspectives. Incentives go beyond merely improving response quantity; they elevate the quality of responses as participants become more engaged, experiencing a sense of reward for their contributions. This heightened engagement results in more thoughtful and insightful feedback, enriching the depth and reliability of your data.

Types of Incentives

Any incentive will help increase the response rate, but generally, “Cash is King.” However, other incentives are also frequently used:

  1. Charity donations. You can offer a charitable donation as an incentive where the participant is forbidden from accepting any incentive they benefit from personally (such as a government employee). In these situations, the charity should be non-controversial and non-political to maximize the response rate. Charitable donations may resonate more effectively with High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI) during surveys, as they may find a direct incentive less compelling. The altruistic nature of contributing to a charitable cause can be more appealing and meaningful to this participant group.
  2. Digital gift cards. Usually, researchers offer a choice of gift cards (such as Amazon, Starbucks, or bank credit cards) so participants can find one that appeals to them. These are very attractive because participants can pick the reward that fits them best.
  3. Companies often use products (their own or other high-value items) as incentives. For example, if a survey included an assignment and sent the participants a Go-Pro to record themselves completing it, they might offer the Go-Pro as an incentive. I personally know that product incentives work because, as a frequent Bloomingdale shopper, they frequently ask me to complete a customer experience survey. I always complete the survey if they offer me a coupon for their frozen yogurt (a $7.00 value). However, I probably would not complete the survey if they had offered me $7 cash or some other incentive.
  4. Sweepstakes and Lotteries. The opportunity to enter a sweepstakes or lottery to win an attractive prize is often a very effective incentive. However, state governments regulate sweepstakes and lotteries, so be sure that they are allowed in your state and that you meet all the requirements for communicating about this incentive to your participants.
  5. Points can be an attractive incentive, especially for consumer panel members. For each survey completed, participants earn points that they can accumulate and later convert into cash or merchandise. One of the attractions of points lies not just in their practicality but also in the psychological impact; they can make rewards ‘feel’ larger than their actual cash values. The number of points earned varies based on the length and subject of the surveys participants qualify for and complete, creating a flexible and engaging reward system.

Designing the Incentive

Many considerations impact the type and value of the incentive offered.

  • Type of research matters. Typically, you can expect to pay a higher incentive for qualitative than quantitative.
  • Length of participation. The incentive should be commensurate with the amount of participant effort required. Therefore, a 10-minute online survey will have a lower incentive than a 20-minute survey with a post-survey shopping assignment and a 15-minute follow-up survey about the shopping!
  • Type of participant. B2B participants typically require larger incentives when compared to most consumer groups. You might pay a typical panel participant $5 for a survey about shoes they bought, but if the same participant is an IT decision-maker selected to complete a study of the same length (but not about shoes!), we should recognize the value of their expertise and compensate them at a level fitting for their roles. Additionally, you must base physicians’ honorariums (never incentives!) on Fair Market Value. Any unique or rare individuals will also earn higher incentives. Think about the incidence of the qualified participant when setting the incentive amount.

In terms of incentive amount, start low and increase the incentive until you have the response you need. Keep in mind that the incentive amount is not linear. That is, the incentive for a 15-minute survey is not three times the incentive for a 5-minute study. Getting a participant to start the survey is the biggest hurdle, and then the incentive increases incrementally based on survey length.


A successful survey relies on various factors such as timing, mobile-friendliness, and well-crafted questions. However, one of the key drivers that ensures success is using the right incentives. Recognizing the importance of incentives in today’s market research landscape, where response rates are declining, is crucial. Incentives not only boost response rates but also enhance participant engagement by ensuring they feel valued. This goes beyond merely improving response quantity; it elevates the quality and reliability of the gathered data. Incentives remain a vital and effective tool for obtaining meaningful and representative insights.