Using Survey Incentives to Improve Response Rates

Get to know the pros and cons of offering survey rewards.

incentives_pros_consOne of the biggest problems you may face is a low response rate to your survey. You can follow every best practice—have a well-defined goal, a perfect draft, a clearly identified target population—but at some point the success of your project is in the hands of your potential respondents.

So how do you encourage survey responses? And what’s the best way to create an incentive for respondents to take your survey, without creating biases that jeopardize your results?

To understand how offering incentives can impact a survey’s results, you need to understand why people take surveys in the first place. Previous research has indicated that people typically respond to surveys for three main reasons:

  1. They want to be helpful
  2. They enjoy the topic of the survey
  3. For a tangible benefit, which typically comes in the form of an incentive

The last of these reasons have led survey creators to think about offering an incentive or reward for their survey respondents. But before you think about offering an incentive for your survey, you may want to consider a few more things.

First off, what is an incentive?

In exchange for completing a survey, respondents are rewarded with an incentive, most often cash or “points” that can be redeemed for gifts. Incentives come in many different forms and are a great way to not only to increase response rates, but to also thank respondents for their time.

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While offering an incentive sounds like a win-win situation, it can be too good to be true. If you’re not careful, your incentive can attract the opinions of the wrong population (or group of respondents). Respondents who are only in it for the incentive may also hurry through your survey instead of giving thoughtful responses.

To help you pick the right approach, we’ll walk you through the types of incentives you can offer, the different times at which you can offer an incentive, and finally, the upsides (and downsides) of using incentives in your survey.

Different types of survey incentives

Incentives typically come in two main forms—monetary and non-monetary. Monetary incentives are things that you can assign a dollar value to such as cash, checks, money orders, gift cards, and coupons. Non-monetary incentives are typically thank you gifts like a free pen or notebook, but can also be things like a brochure or even a charity donation, which is the incentive that we use for our SurveyMonkey Audience  panellists.

Monetary incentives

When it comes to increasing response rates, previous research has shown that cash is king. Cold, hard cash incentives tend to boost response rates the most. Non-monetary incentives like  thank you gifts aren’t as effective as monetary incentives when it comes to increasing response rates. And as you might expect, the more money or the nicer the thank you gift you offer, the higher the response rate. That said, there is a point at which increasing the incentive value doesn’t really help out response rates very much.

There is no perfect amount or value for a survey incentive, but there are three things that you can keep in mind in order to help you determine what type of incentive you should offer and how much it should be valued:

  1. The budget for your survey project
  2. How you will provide the incentive
  3. The target population of your survey

Let’s say you’ve decided to go with a monetary incentive of cash and your target population is doctors. You’ll want to go with a high value incentive since doctors are often very busy interacting with their patients and the amount has to be high enough to make it worth their time to respond. It isn’t unheard of to offer $100 cash to a doctor as an incentive to complete a survey, but you probably wouldn’t need to offer that same amount to someone who is a student.

Non-monetary incentives

What if you decided to go with a non-monetary incentive? Make sure that the incentive has universal appeal to your target population. Say you wanted to encourage participation in a post-conference feedback survey for educators and students. You might not want to offer free textbooks as an incentive since you might get too many students to respond to your survey, but not enough teachers and educational professionals. Instead, you might want to think about giving out school supplies like notebooks and pens, since both students and educators could have use for them. Similarly, if you offered a discount to attend the conference again next year, you might encourage people who liked the conference to take the surveys, but people who didn’t want to attend again would have no incentive to share their opinion.

It’s crucial to think about what you are providing as an incentive (whether it be monetary or non-monetary) and what the value is. Include the wrong incentive and you could get an incredibly biased group of respondents to your survey, which wouldn’t yield actionable data for you in the end.

Timing of incentives: promised versus prepaid

Once you’ve determined what kind of incentive to provide, you’ll have to decide whether you want to provide it to your target population before they even complete the survey (prepaid) or only provide it to your respondents after they’ve completed the survey (promised).

Decades of research on survey incentives have shown that prepaid incentives are the most effective in increasing response rates, but this method is generally difficult to execute for online surveys and tends to be more costly since you provide the incentive to everyone, regardless of whether or not they respond. Promised incentives are much easier to execute, since you can email someone a gift certificate afterwards or mail them a small thank you gift.

More on promised incentives: sweepstakes versus individual incentives

If you decide to go with a promised incentive, you’ll have to make another decision—whether to do a sweepstakes, raffle, or lottery and only award the incentive to a small group of people, or to reward everyone who responds. For example, you could offer all respondents a chance at winning a $200 gift card that only one person would receive (sweepstakes incentive), or you could offer every respondent a $2 gift card (individual incentive).

When it comes to web surveys, individual promised incentives have been shown to increase response rates to surveys since everyone who completes the survey is rewarded for their time, but the jury is still out on the impact of sweepstakes. Thus far, when it comes to online surveys, research hasn’t been able to definitively show that offering a sweepstakes incentive is more effective at increasing response rates than offering no incentive at all.

But, there are two things that you should remember if you decide to go with a sweepstakes incentive. First, sweepstakes must meet legal requirements, and those requirements do differ by state and country, so make sure to check with a legal professional to verify that you aren’t breaking any rules.

Second are confidentiality issues. Respondents are often concerned about the confidentiality and anonymity of their survey responses. With promised incentives, you may need to collect personal information like email or mailing addresses, so make sure you take the proper precautions of protecting your respondents’ information and also let them know that their responses won’t be linked back to their personal information. Otherwise, you may not get them to respond to questions of a sensitive nature that they don’t want tracked back to them.

When to use incentives

While incentives have demonstrated that they can help with response rates, it’s important to keep in mind that a high response rate doesn’t mean that a survey is free of bias. You could have a group of respondents that look nothing like your target population, or because a biasing incentive type was offered, those surveyed could look vastly different from those who did not respond.

Also, another thing to keep in mind is that your survey may not even need an incentive. Particularly for customer satisfaction surveys, offering incentives may harm the quality of feedback you get. Respondents may be more likely to provide positive feedback if they were provided a prepaid incentive, or may be only providing feedback just to get the incentive. In situations like these, you may want to think about skipping survey incentives and using those funds for a follow-up survey.

A situation where you might want to use an incentive is when you are trying to target a rare population or trying to survey a group of people that are traditionally less likely to respond–also called “non-responders.” For rare populations like doctors, who are hard to find and have other competing time priorities, having an incentive is a lot more effective than not offering one. When it comes to non-responders, if you’ve already sent out your survey to your target population and need more responses, you could think about contacting this group again and offering an extra incentive to those who haven’t responded so you don’t bias your sample.

Have no idea where to start? Think about testing different incentive structures with a small group of respondents before you launch your survey to everyone. This may give you insight on whether your incentive is effective and also whether your incentive is providing you the best, unbiased sample of respondents possible.

This article is part of SurveyMonkey’s Surveys 101 project. We hope to help more people create smart surveys. Learn more about the project and our involvement in the research community.
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