How to use incentives to improve response rates in online surveys

Woman shopping with a gift card.

In situations where you anticipate difficulty recruiting respondents to your online survey, consider an incentive. Incentives can come in many forms, but this is essentially a reward provided in exchange for completing a survey. A well-placed incentive can help improve your online survey response rates to get the feedback and insights you seek.

Different types of incentives

Generally, there are two different types of incentives: monetary and non-monetary. A monetary incentive can include gift cards, cash, prepaid credit cards, coupons, etc. A non-monetary incentive can be many things such as access to an industry report, a vacation giveaway, or sweepstakes to win an iPad. When considering what type of incentive to use in your online survey, think about what the cost will be to you; and consider what kind of incentive your survey takers value. A business person may value access to industry data; or if your survey is recruiting feedback from sports consumers, an autographed basketball or tickets to an event may serve as a highly-valued incentive. It pays to be creative since a monetary reward isn’t always the way to go.

When to use incentives

Not all online surveys need an incentive. Many things impact why people fill out surveys, and an incentive is appropriate if you anticipate difficulties in achieving the desired number of completed interviews. You may be targeting an audience that is rare or hard to reach. For example, if you want to survey executives at Fortune 1000 companies, this will be a challenging target to recruit and you will need to highly incentivize them.

Other indicators may suggest a potential for low response rates to your survey. If your survey is long or includes a difficult task (e.g. ask people to keep a log of their TV viewing), you may need to include an incentive. Topic salience (respondent’s interest in the survey topic) and survey sponsor ( the strength of relationship the respondent has to the survey sponsor) are also two very strong drivers of participation rates to online surveys. If you expect your online survey to pose recruiting challenges an incentive should be considered.

Keep in mind that an incentive will engender positive feelings towards your survey. This not only has the effect of encouraging participation, but also positive survey feedback. Studies have shown that a survey respondent will give higher product ratings or express slightly higher satisfaction when given a monetary incentive versus not. As well, incentives can attract respondents that care more about the prize than your survey. Another concern may be that incentives can bias the demographic sample of a survey, but studies haven’t supported this notion (1).

Whatever the case may be, data and sample quality checks are a routine part of survey research, especially so when an incentive is involved. Incentives can be a valuable tool for improving survey participation, but it would be inappropriate to compare data from one study that used incentives with one that did not.

How much incentive should I offer?

Five dollars is a good starting point for an incentive on a consumer survey; while $10 would be the starting point for a B2B study. Your incentive may be more or less depending on the particulars of your survey and audience.

Obviously, the larger the incentive amount you offer, the higher the survey participation will be. However, this relationship is not linear. Your incentive must be at a certain threshold before it can have a significant impact; as well, diminishing returns can occur as the incentives amount you offer gets higher.

Researchers testing cash incentives in one dollar increments, ranging from 0 – $10 discovered the following (2): The more cash they offered, the better the response rate to their survey. However, there was little difference between any of the $0 – $4 cash incentive conditions. Not until they offered $5-$8, was there a significant improvement over the lesser amounts. Interestingly, little difference was noted between any of the $5-$8 amounts. The $10 condition showed the highest response rate at 26%.

What is the impact of an incentive?

It’s impossible to predict with certainty how much your incentive will boost survey participation. There are many factors that affect survey response rates. Poor survey wording, long grids, a boring survey topic, or even asking too many sensitive questions may hamper your efforts to field a survey. Different kinds of incentive and the type of audience target are also going to matter.

For this reason, also, published experiments assessing the impact of incentives have varied widely. For example, one study found an incentive increased survey completion rates by an average of 4.2% over no incentives (3). They also did not see a significant difference between various ways the incentives were issued. This included lottery or guaranteed incentives; cash or non-cash incentives. A more recent review found an 18% boost in survey participation when offering a $10 incentives (4); while our own work with a $2 incentive improved survey participation in a consumer survey by just under 10% (5). We also found no difference between a small guaranteed incentive and bigger sweepstakes payout as long as the expected value was the same (e.g. 1 in 500 chance to win $2500 was the same as $5 guaranteed).

Overall, incentives can have a positive impact and draw people to your survey, whether it be a monetary reward or non-monetary reward. Your specific audience may value different things. For some, it may be cash, for others, access to information or an exclusive event are strong motivators. Finally, keep in mind that improving response rates to your survey should be an integrated effort. Incentives are only one piece of the puzzle you should consider when trying to recruit people to take your survey. Things like reminders, a well-executed email invite, or an engaging survey design can all influence survey participation.

References

  1. Singer, Eleanor, and C. Ye. (2013). The Use and Effects of Incentives in Surveys. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 645(1): 112-141.
  2. Trussell, N., Lavrakas, Paul (2004). The Influence of Incremental Increases in Token Cash Incentives. Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 68, No.3, 349-367.
  3. Goritz, A (2006). Incentives in Web Studies: Methodological Issues and a Review. International Journal of Internet Science 2006, 1 (1), 58-70.
  4. Yu, S. et al. (2017). The effectiveness of a monetary incentive offer on survey response rates and response completeness in a longitudinal study. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 17: 77.
  5. Brazil, J., Jue, A., Mullins, C., and Plunkett, J. (2006) “ Variables that influence dropout rates and data quality in Web surveys ” Quirks, July, 42-54.
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