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Research Surveys: Make sure the incentive is there

You’ve put great effort into developing a questionnaire … now the next challenge is to gain a good response rate from a representative cross-sample of your target market.

The choice of whether someone will respond to a research survey invitation is one of  “costs versus benefits”:  What will completing the survey cost me versus the benefit I receive?”

The “cost” aspect comes in several forms:

Time – There’s never enough of it!

Effort – Too many survey questionnaires are overly long and complicated.

Privacy – Will the information I provide be kept confidential?

Spamming – Will my information be used to try to sell me something later?

As for the “benefit” … time was, many customers felt special and valued just because they were being asked for their opinions. But as survey research has proliferated – especially online – it’s no longer a very unique experience.

Providing a monetary incentive to improve response is one way to go. Including a small token of appreciation with your survey invitation (such as a $1 or $2 bill) can juice your response rate significantly because it sets up an implied obligation on the part of the recipient.

By contrast, offering to provide a monetary reward after the survey has been filled out has been shown not to work as well – in part because of people’s skepticism that they’ll ever receive the award.

Of course, providing a monetary incentive is difficult in online surveys. But even if that isn’t feasible, there are steps you can take to improve participation in your research:

  • Make the survey as short as you can … and keep the questionnaire clean and uncluttered, too.
  • Use open-ended questions sparingly … too many of those will tank your response rate.
  • Avoid sensitive questions unless they’re absolutely necessary, and place them at the end of the survey. (Questions about household income or business sales volume are typically the most radioactive.)
  • Be specific as to how the information will (and will not) be used.

One other thing:
The larger your sample size, the more flexibility you’ll have in the incentive you offer. After all, it’s a good deal easier to achieve a 5% response rate from a sample of 5,000 targets, than to obtain 25% from a sample of 1,000!


Contact Mullin/Ashley

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