The Benefits (and Dangers) of Survey Incentives

One best practice for increasing survey participation is to offer some type of incentive to the respondents for taking the time to complete a questionnaire. The increase in response rates has been proven across many research studies and experiments, making the practice of offering incentives one of the most commonly utilized methods of driving survey response rates.

Incentives, while they may help in gathering more responses, may have a effect of reducing data quality, however. Many research methodologists have accordingly attempted to answer the question of what type of possibly confounding impact incentives might have on survey responses.

On one hand, some studies have shown that survey respondents tend to offer lengthier answers to open-ended questions; furthermore, these studies reflect fewer skipped questions or “N/A” type answer choices.

Interestingly enough, other research reports have proven that offering sizable incentives can create a bias effect among respondents, where they feel obligated to feel more positively about the surveyor. This feeling of obligation can then skew data to incorrectly reflect a higher degree of positive feedback.

Remember, while it is important to establish data significance by reaching a threshold of response quantity, it is even more important to ensure response quality. While incentives are a great way to get response rates up, you should be careful to only use them when necessary.

From time to time sends us a survey, asking for quite a bit of information about college attended or previous employers. These surveys require quite a bit of time—nearly 30 to 40 minutes to complete one survey. However, we have completed the entire feedback form in the past because of the $10 Amazon Gift Card incentive. When a survey is really long, an incentive is necessary. However, if that same survey was just three or four questions long, people may respond without any type of offer. Finding that balance and knowing how to use just enough to get where you want to go—that should be your objective.

The takeaway here is to:

• Randomly sample a portion of your survey respondent list, and survey them first to see if response rates are going to be an issue in the first place.

• If you do decide to use incentives, make sure the offer is enough to pique their interest and respond, but not such a great prize that it makes people feel obligated to give you positive feedback.

Don’t forget: you don’t need a 100 percent response rate in many cases to get significant and accurate insight from your survey. Strike the balance between quantity and quality and you’ll achieve the highest survey ROI.


Incentives for Increasing Return Rates: Magnitude Levels, Response Bias, amd Format, by J. Scott Mizes, E. Louis Fleece and Cindy Roos © 1984 American Association for Public Opinion Research.
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