The pros and cons of survey prizes

How to incentivize your respondents to get quality data

If you do an online search for “survey prizes,” you’ll find plenty of links that are focused on the wrong end of that equation: The rewards.

“Answer Surveys, Earn Rewards. Easy,” says one. “Surveys for Money,” says another. “Earn Up to $35 per Survey,” promises yet another one.

We all know that respondents who don’t have the right motivation to complete a survey can provide lower-quality data, because they don’t care about the responses. Survey incentives or prizes, however, can be great help in collecting responses without putting the reliability of your results at risk. Let’s see how.

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Do survey rewards really work?

The use of survey prizes, also known as incentivizing, is a common way to get complete responses in online surveys. Survey creators offer an incentive (many times money or a gift) in exchange for the completion of the questionnaire.

Unfortunately, many people also associate rewards with low-quality surveys, completed by serial responders who are solely focused on receiving the prize at the end.

So, the main question here is how effective these rewards actually are.

The truth is that offering the right kinds of rewards to the right kinds of respondents can help you encourage hard-to-reach audiences to complete your survey. One option, even, is to offer indirect rewards that benefit not your respondent but a third party, like a charity. (We’ll talk more about that below.)

Indirect rewards are the basis of our survey response service, SurveyMonkey Contribute, where we pay 50 cents to a charity of our respondents’ choice every time they complete a questionnaire.

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However, incentivizing also comes with several risks.

The cons of survey prizes

The following are some examples of how survey prizes can hurt survey results when they are not used appropriately.

Your reward may be attracting the wrong kind of respondent. For example, let’s say you run a pet store and you want to know how to improve various areas of service, like hours, staffing, online presence, etc. You need pet owners in your area to respond to your survey and, if you don’t know who you’re sending your survey to, you may end up reaching people who will take your reward even if they don’t have pets.

Beware of people who are only looking for a reward. In the survey industry, they are known as ‘satisficers’: They are the people who only rush through questionnaires to collect a reward, and may even misrepresent themselves to be able to participate in more surveys.

Survey rewards are not a silver bullet. Academic research suggests that people who received a reward for completing a task will expect another reward the second time you ask them to do the same thing. This could hinder your attempts to run successive surveys with the same group of people. So, use rewards when you need a quick one-time survey but avoid them when your project requires a series of similar surveys over time.

Incentives can be counterproductive. Psychology researchers have shown that incentives, and cash especially, can demotivate people instead of incentivizing them to do something. Getting responses from people who are really not that interested could hurt the quality of your data.

Rewards can introduce bias in your results. Let’s say you offered a discount in your hotel rates to guests who filled out an exit survey. Those who didn’t like the service are probably not interested in coming back and hence don’t care about the discount. So you’d end up missing out on some important feedback from the type of customers whose experience you need to improve the most.

We did a whole lot of reading so you don’t have to. Check our blog if you want to know more about academic research on survey rewards.

Do you really need to use incentives?

As we have seen, survey prizes are not always a good idea since they may worsen the quality of your results. To figure out if you actually need to use them, you can ask yourself the following questions:

What is my target population? If you already know your audience (existing customers, for example) and you have access to them, offering a reward may simplify things for you. You want to encourage those valuable respondents to complete the survey. But if you’re sending your survey to just about anybody, the cost of offering rewards to each of them may not be justified.

What’s my relationship with survey respondents? You don’t need to offer prizes to people who already feel compelled to respond, like students who get a survey from their professor. But if you only depend on respondents’ goodwill, sweetening the deal with a reward may get you more responses.

Are my respondents interested in my topic? People who are invested in or involved with a particular issue want their voices to be heard. For example, neighbors will probably respond to a questionnaire about the need for a new park in their area. They won’t need extra encouragement to share their opinions.

How long and complex is my survey? If you’re asking people to fill out ten pages of questions or more than a few open-ended questions that require reflection and a few minutes of writing, it might help to offer a little something extra to show them that you value their time.

When to use incentives

There are a couple of additional scenarios where survey prizes may be particularly effective.

Specific groups that are hard to reach. You could be trying to reach rare populations who don’t have a lot of time to respond to a survey, like doctors and other professionals.

“Non-responders.” These are the people who already received your survey but have not got around to answering it yet. If you still need more responses to achieve an adequate sample size, you can reach out to these people again and offer an extra incentive for completing the questionnaire.

In any case, you shouldn’t forget that there are other ways to increase your survey response rates without having to give a reward in return. You can read some suggestions in this help article on a survey’s response rate.

Survey incentive ideas: Which rewards to use

Once you’ve decided that you want to use survey prizes, there’s a few more decisions you need to make: Are you going to use incentives that are monetary or non-monetary? Promised or prepaid? Sweepstakes or individual? Direct or indirect?

Monetary incentives are cash, checks, money orders, gifts cards, and coupons.

Non-monetary incentives include ‘thank you’ gifts like a notebook or a travel coffee mug.

Cash and other monetary incentives are more powerful in getting response rates to go up. And the more you offer, the more responses you get.

To decide how much you need to spend, consider your budget constraints and the target population. For example, professionals and students place different levels of value on their time, and getting the former to respond will cost you more.

If you choose a non-monetary reward, check that it is appealing to your respondents. For example, you probably don’t want to offer baseball hats as a reward for taking a survey during an industry convention where likely dozens of exhibitors are giving hats away to anyone who walks by.

Prepaid incentives: The respondents receive their rewards before they even complete the survey.

Promised incentives: Only the respondents who have completed the questionnaire receive the reward.

It may sound counterintuitive, but research shows that prepaid incentives increase response rates more effectively than promised ones. Obviously, this is a more costly method since you have no guarantees that everyone who gets a reward will complete the questionnaire. It is also harder to implement with online surveys than a promised reward, which can take the form of a gift certificate delivered by email or a gift sent by the mail.

Sweepstakes: You can use a sweepstakes, a raffle or lottery to award the actual prize to a smaller number of people.

Individual incentives: You give a reward to every survey participant.

Individual incentives offer a more direct compensation to every survey taker, but sweepstakes can be an option when your budget is limited. However, there are a couple of complications. First, their effectiveness has not been proven. And second, they imply legal requirements that vary by state and country, so you need to get legal advice to make sure you’re doing them right.

Direct rewards: These include all rewards, monetary or non-monetary, that the respondent receives–and they come with the risks that we’ve explained above.

Indirect rewards: They provide you with an alternative that can increase response rates without encouraging satisficers. Instead of rewarding the respondent directly, you offer to make a charity donation in their name.

The advantage with indirect rewards is that the respondents don’t rush through a survey out of pure self-interest. And you get more responses than if you hadn’t offered a reward.

As you can see, survey prizes are an effective tool that can help survey creators after some careful planning and evaluation of the pros and cons. For sure, they are a tool that carries some risks but also rewards.

3 quick tips to improve survey response rates

Here are some ideas to ensure that respondents will answer your surveys.

1. Be quick

If your survey is short and sweet, there's a greater chance that more respondents will complete it.

2. Offer incentives

Little incentives like small discount or an entry into a drawing can help ensure respondents complete your survey.

3. Buy a targeted audience

With SurveyMonkey Audience, you can purchase access to an audience who meets specific demographic criteria for your survey. It's a great way to get targeted responses from a specific group.

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