Survey Incentives? Wrong Motivation, Wrong Outcome

Generally speaking, I don’t approve of using incentives to get responses for a survey. 

In my experience survey incentives create the wrong motivation, set the wrong expectations, and deliver the wrong outcomes. 

Instead, survey designers should strive to communicate the value of their research to drive people to answer their questions. 

Let me show you what I mean with an example first. 

Incentive Example: Wood Chopping

I recently hired a dozen workers. I divided them at random into two groups of six and took them out to the woods, where I took group A to a clearing with several fallen pine trees.

I gave them tools and asked them to clean, cut, and stack the wood from the fallen trees. We agreed on a rate of payment of $15 per hour, and they went to work.

I took group B to another clearing and asked them to strike the fallen trees with the blunt end of an axe repeatedly. For their “work,” I agreed to pay them $15 per hour as well.

Twenty minutes later, group A was happily working, but group B had stopped. Our agreed upon rate of $15 per hour was no longer sufficient to motivate them to do work that seemed pointless. Before they would go back to work I had to double their wages. 

Twenty minutes later group A was happily working, but group B had once again stopped.

You get the picture. There is more to motivation than extrinsic rewards!

The Lesson for Survey Incentives

Research has shown the main reason people do surveys is because they think their input is going to affect something they care about.

Ultimately, surveys are about communication and relationships as well as objective data analysis.

In most cases the respondent has a connection with the surveyor: customer-supplier, consumer-vendor, shared interest in a topic, or the desire to listen and be heard.

Leverage these relationships to provide the motivation to do a survey.

You can tap into this motivation by:

  • Carefully designing your survey with the respondent in mind
  • Committing yourself to USE the information provided
  • Offering to share the information obtained with those participating
  • Communicating back to your audience on how the information they provided was used
  • Connecting to the respondent in any way you can, including responding to comments they make





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Breaking the Incentive Habit

I often hear from clients that incentives have worked well for them in the past, and it’s true that they can be a useful way to increase your survey response rates

While it’s true that I don’t care for incentives, I admit I have used them.

We are all creatures of habit. If respondents have been trained to receive something for doing a survey (as is the case with most opt-in email lists available), the incentive becomes a requirement.

But we can all help to break the incentive habit by providing proper motivation for doing our surveys.

Connect with your audience, be clear about how you plan to use the data you’re collecting, and you’ll create a culture of reciprocity that might just break your incentive habit. 

Join the Conversation
  • Jack W Fountain

    I receive daily requests to fill out surveys. At first, I would gladly fill them out. The surveys began to get longer and longer and to take too much of my time. I decided that I wanted to know “what’s in it for me?” With no incentive to “give” my valuable time, I no longer do those surveys. Even the marginal incentives to “enter for a chance to win” don’t do it for me. I like your incentive. I’ll take your five bucks. Thanks.

  • Jack – Thanks for the comment. You support my point eloquently. It was clearly your experience with incentives and the onslaught of survey requests that “motivated” you to comment, not so much the five bucks. Although who doesn’t want five bucks if they are being handed out. Sure monetary incentives can work as a last resort, but improving response and data quality comes from trying to understand what are the real motivators for your survey audience.

  • Your article makes a good point.

    When the “task” of contributing feedback or other information is greater than the perceived reward (recogonition, validation, monetary) most people will conclude “Why bother?” With so many things competing for our attention these days, the level of reward must appear credible and obtainable if it is to be used effectively. Giving away $5.00 for example seems more credible than a chance to get $500.

  • Very interesting! It flies in the face of what all of the “studies” are saying. I like the “relationship” focus, which is where our company is going.
    What if we want to do both? If so, how do you send the individual $5 without mailing it? I agree with Jack who said they’ve been overdone. I’ve entered way too many contests and haven’t one anything. They don’t appeal to me anymore. $5 works for me:)

  • Tammy,
    Thanks for your comment. I don’t think this flies in the face of “what all the ‘studies’ are saying”. If you have references to some of these studies I would be interested in seeing them. Most of the studies address what type of give-a-way works best, not whether it is the right thing to do in the first place. In my article I refer to a study I read about six or seven years ago out of the Survey Research Center, University of Michigan, that said people fill out surveys because they think it is going to affect something they care about. (I don’t have the direct reference for it right now.) I say you stick with the “relationship” focus. The only time you need to go with a monetary incentive is if you have no connection with the potential respondent, for example they are on a list you purchased. If it comes down to that you can send “electronic” gift cards or certificates (Amazon.com is my favorite). There is also nothing wrong with mailing someone $5, but it is more time for you.

  • Janice Livingston-Rivard

    I liked the article but I would like to take suvives for money but I”ve tried several sites and they were all rip-offs……….But I”ll take the five bucks…

  • This is a good testimony to my point. The reason the “rip-off” sites exist is because there are people like you who want to take surveys for money but it doesn’t make business sense to pay people to take surveys. Best wishes.

  • Susan Schuler

    Dear Ed, Loved your experiment! My experience is mostly with telephone surveys and focus panels. We never pay for the former and are almost always successful at filling our quotas. With focus panels, a cash incentive is necessary, but we also recruit on having an interesting experience and influencing the clients. We’ve found that least affluent demographics are least likely to cooperate for both types of research.

  • lol, I love the first response making your point exactly, beautiful work Mr. Halteman

  • Anonymous

    It was a joke dummy

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