How to Make Sure You Get Meaningful Responses: Avoid Direct Rewards

Incentives

In a perfect worldSurvey respondents would take surveys for free, putting a lot of thought into all of their responses. Survey creators would then get great data within hours, or even minutes, for free. We’d be able to answer any questions we had about the world without spending a penny.

In realityRespondents aren’t that willing to take surveys without some kind of reward.

What to do? Typically, respondents are paid money for completing a survey.

What do we do? Well, we like to do things a little differently over here at SurveyMonkey. We don’t give any direct rewards to respondents. Instead, we donate 50 cents to a charity of the respondent’s choice.

Why? According to tons of research, directly rewarding respondents is a really bad idea.

How come? Imagine that your dad tells you that he’ll give you 50 cents for every weed you pull from the yard. You’d probably run into the yard, grab as many weeds as you could get your hands on, probably pulling more than a few plants out along with the weeds, getting dirt everywhere, and were you really taking the time to pull each and every weed out from their roots? Eh, be honest now. You’d probably be looking at a disaster area.

The same thing happens in the survey world. When paid with money, respondents tend to rush through a bunch of surveys in order to get as much money as possible rather than taking the time to answer each question honestly and carefully. The survey creator is then left with a sloppy mess of responses instead of thoughtful ones that will provide meaningful data.

Okay, but what if the respondents genuinely enjoy taking surveys and don’t rush through them? It’s true, there are some respondents on panels who find surveys interesting and like taking them. The problem is that rewarding people for doing something they enjoy completely backfires, according to a lot of psychological research. In one study, children who liked to draw were either given a reward for drawing or not. Afterwards, when they were allowed to do whatever they wanted, the children that weren’t rewarded still showed an interest in drawing, but the rewarded children couldn’t have cared less.

That seems backwards, doesn’t it? I’d love to be paid to do something I likeThink about it this way. Artists paint because there’s something about painting that they really enjoy. But add a reward into the mix and suddenly, their focus is on the reward, on something other than the activity itself. The activity becomes a way to get the reward, instead of something that’s enjoyable on its own.

Don’t forget about the iPhone effectWhen the iPhone first came out, people were thrilled and also shocked to see a mobile phone that looked and functioned the way it did. A futuristic looking phone with a touch screen that gives you both Internet and music access? It seemed too good to be true and even a little intimidating. But then people got used to it. With each iPhone update and release, the demand and the expectation for improvements and even more new-fangled features became the norm. Pretty soon, a phone that obeyed your every (well, almost every) voice command still wasn’t enough.

Moral of the story? People quickly get used to things and then want more. Say you start with a survey reward of two dollars. Before you know it, people will want a five dollar reward, then ten, then a fifteen dollar reward and…you get the idea. So unless you’ve been blessed with a magical limitless bank account, it’s just not possible to keep increasing rewards into infinity and beyond.

The bottom line Try not to pay respondents to take your survey. Dangling that carrot directly in front of your respondents’ faces may not be the best way to get the most meaningful feedback. If you’re looking for specific respondents, or need a target audience to take your survey, we recommend you check out our donation-based feature, SurveyMonkey Audience, which gives you access to a target demographic for whatever your survey project needs may be.

Don’t forget to let us know if you have any questions or comments below!

Image courtesy of BigStock photo

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Inspired? Create your own survey.

Inspired? Create your own survey.

  • http://wrl.com dan kennedy

    I like the idea of donating to charity and see this as an option in the online world. Regrettably this might sound harsh, but i suppose that I could see this work for the types of online surveys that I typically so no thank you to already?

    I cant help but find it hard to imagine that this approach would work offline in the physical world, or if there was any sort of commitment required by the survey respondent for time.

  • Jacqui I

    There is also the somewhat indirect option of entering respondents into a draw. An example is Council surveys of residents, typically by phone, and up to 20 minutes long. The only reward is being entered into a draw for a 1 in 400 chance of a prize worth perhaps $200.