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Survey Science

How to offer survey incentives without sacrificing good data

How to offer survey incentives without sacrificing good data

Even if you have the perfect survey, ultimately the success of your survey is in the hands of your potential respondents.

But don’t worry—you aren’t completely reliant upon their will. There’s something you can do to encourage respondents to complete your survey:

First off, what’s an incentive? An incentive is money or possibly a gift you provide to the respondent in exchange for completing your survey. Incentives come in many different forms and are a great way to increase response rates and thank respondents for their time.

While this sounds like a win-win situation, you’ve got to be careful that you aren’t capturing the wrong population or group of respondents because of the incentive you’re offering.

In this post, we’ll go over survey incentive best practices, including incentivizing pros and cons, the types of survey incentives you can offer, and when you would (and wouldn’t) use a survey incentive.

From cash prizes to coupons, you've got tons of options for improving your response rate!

Incentives typically come in two main forms: monetary and non-monetary. Monetary incentives include 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 Contribute panelists.

When it comes to increasing response rates, previous research has shown that cash is king, boosting survey response rates the most. And non-monetary incentives like a thank-you gift aren’t as effective as monetary incentives when it comes to increasing response rates.

As you might expect, the more money or the nicer the thank-you gift you offer, the higher the response rate. But there’s a point at which increasing the incentive value doesn’t really help out response rates very much.

If you decide to go with a non-monetary incentive, make sure that the incentive has universal appeal to your target population. For example, if you’re a grocery store owner, don’t offer free diapers for a customer feedback survey—otherwise you might get only new moms to respond. Instead, you might want to think about giving out coupons for 20% off the next purchase, since most respondents could have a use for them.

Unfortunately, there’s 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 (and the value) of any survey incentive you’re offering:

  1. Your budget: If your budget is capped at say $200 for your survey project, you’ll be limited to offering a pretty small incentive to each respondent or possibly using a sweepstakes option (more on this below).
  2. Your target population for your survey: Let’s say you’ve decided to go with a monetary incentive of cash and your target population is doctors for a healthcare survey. You’ll want to go with a high-value incentive since doctors are often very busy, so 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 the survey, but you probably don’t want to offer that same amount to a student.
  3. How you will provide the incentive: 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).

Prepaid incentives are the most effective in increasing response rates, but this method is generally difficult to execute for online surveys. They also tend 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.

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 whether you’re awarding the incentive to a small group of people or to everyone who responds.

When it comes to online surveys, individual promised incentives have been shown to increase response rates to surveys since everyone who completes the survey is rewarded for their time. However, the jury is still out on the impact of sweepstakes.

With promised incentives, you may need to collect personal information like email or mailing addresses. 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 sensitive nature that they don’t want tracked back to them.

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 might want to think about skipping survey incentives and use those funds for a survey instead.

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 less likely to respond, also called non-responders.

When it comes to non-responders, if you’ve already sent out your survey but need more responses (for example, in a marketing survey) you could think about contacting the non-responders 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 an idea on whether your incentive is effective and also whether your incentive is providing you the best, unbiased sample of respondents possible.

However you decide to use survey incentives, our help center article can get you started!