Increasing Response Rates Part II: Using Incentives

In my last post (Increasing Response Rates: Part I), I talked about our five go-to tactics for improving survey response rates.

In this post, we will dive deeper into how to use incentives by sharing real life failures and successes from four case studies. To quickly refresh your memory, our favorite tactics are:

  1. Share survey results and analysis with your respondents.
  2. Recruit allies who will urge potential respondents to participate.
  3. Send email reminder notices.
  4. Offer a charitable donation per response.
  5. Offer thoughtful thank-you gifts as incentives.

After you read this list, your next question should be: Which incentives will be the most effective for my survey? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer.

Each audience will be motivated by a different kind of incentive, and the art of increasing response rates will take time to master. The key is to not give up!

These brief case studies will help you start thinking about your audience and their unique motivators. Once you’ve read through them, add your own stories in the comments below. I’d like to hear which incentives you’ve tried, what worked, and what didn’t.

In these stories, a theme that will come up again and again is to know and respect your audience.

They are taking time out of their busy day to fill out your survey, so it’s important to thank them appropriately. We’ll start with a failure.

Monetary Un-Incentive

I told this story in the previous article, but the gist is that back in the old snail mail days, I responded to a survey because the senders included a one-dollar bill in the envelope.

Since this had successfully motivated me, I attached two crisp one-dollar bills to the 150 surveys I mailed to each state’s Department of Education.

Of those 150 surveys, I only received three responses.

What went wrong? In retrospect, I think the $2 was presumptive and insulting.

The survey required much more than $2 worth of the respondents’ time. A cover letter describing the purpose of the study and offering to share the results would have been more effective.

My results and analysis could have given the respondents insights into their work and what other states were doing well, making their jobs a little easier. That’s worth a lot more than $2!

Stepping on the Gas for Lead Generation

A client once offered $25 gas cards to everyone who responded to a particular lead-generation survey. Shortly after we fielded the survey, the average price for a gallon of gas rose to over $3, and we had a lot of responses.

I don’t remember the response rate, but I do remember my client was pretty excited.

Of course, $25 is a steep incentive, but the leads were worth the cost for my client.

A word of warning: when we started going through the file, we found multiple duplicates – people who thought they could game the system for two or three gas cards.

If your incentive is really exciting – Super Bowl tickets anyone? – make sure you put quality control measures in place to protect yourself from duplicates, incompletes, and bad data. Only authentic data should be rewarded!

A Puzzling Motivation

Once, a client offered a small desk puzzle that had the client’s company logo on the side. When I held the puzzle in my hand, I wanted one.

It was a clever puzzle and looked nice on my desk, but it didn’t incentivize many responses.

In fact, some respondents added comments saying don’t send me the puzzle. While mine still has a spot of honor on my desk and is a conundrum for anyone entering my office, it was not an effective incentive for their audience.

Any gift that seems self-serving (like a logoed knick knack) may not be effective.

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The Right Gift Drives Results

This is one of my most mystifying examples. A client came to me with the choice of two incentives: a $10 gift certificate to a coffee shop or a USB drive. Because all of his respondents were in the technology industry, I assumed that they had all of the USB drives they wanted and that the coffee card would be a much more effective incentive.

He wasn’t so sure, so we duplicated his survey and split the list of email invites.

Half of the email invitees received the USB offer and half received the coffee card. To my surprise, responses from the USB group outnumbered the coffee card group about 6-to-1!

One week later, we sent a reminder email to both email lists offering only the USB drive. The response rate from what had originally been the coffee group increased significantly.

This just goes to show you how important the right incentive really is!

Lessons and Takeaways

The message in these stories is that in order to work, the incentive has to match the audience.

If you know who your respondents are, what they value, and respect them for the time they took to answer your questions, then they will reward you with excellent survey data.

Sometimes, as in the case of my mistake with the two one-dollar bills, a tangible incentive will not be as motivating as the offer to share the survey results. For other groups, a tangible incentive does not necessarily need to have a large monetary value.

But the incentives do have to show that you know and are thankful for your respondents in a meaningful way. Done well, incentives will increase response rates and motivate your respondents to take future surveys.

Good luck! Have a story about survey incentives you’ve seen or used? Share your experiences and questions in the comments below.

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