This week there was a lot of discussion about panel quality and engagement after a respondent panel at CASRO. Part of the discussion was around incentives. Throughout my tenure in qualitative research, I have had many discussions on the pros and cons of offering incentives when conducting (online) research. In addition to my thoughts around incentives, I also surveyed Forrester’s online community of US consumers to get their opinions on the topic (quotes in italics below).

Generally you should always offer an incentive to participants for online research. However, what you offer and the value depends on a number of factors.

First, consider what you are asking of your participants.Are you asking for their feedback on a product they own or personal experience with a brand? This is where a lower incentive or, in some cases, no incentive could work because consumers who care about the product or brand are usually willing to share their experiences, and they can provide feedback on this type of topic fairly quickly. You see this, for example, a lot in co-creation communities. But when you ask a participant to complete a long study or multiple studies or when you ask for participation in a longer-term engagement such as an online community, it always requires an incentive to sustain their participation and ensure good-quality responses.

“It really depends on how much time I have to invest. If it’s a quick survey that doesn't take much time, I don't expect anything in return. But if it's going to be a lengthy process, I want something for my time.”

Next question to ask: Are you reaching out to this group for the first time? In that case, an incentive not only attracts the attention of a new group of participants; it also functions as an offering of good will. To your consumers, an incentive says, “I appreciate your time and thoughts enough to reward you for them.”

“I believe that consumers should be compensated for giving feedback to companies . . . they are taking time out of their busy schedules to answer questions and give honest feedback.” 

Whatever type of research you’re dealing with, please remember that respondents prefer the bird in the hand. When faced with the chance to win a $100 or earn $1 for completing a survey, chances are the participant will take the dollar over the $100 drawing. When effort is required (as opposed to entering a contest), participants are more motivated by a guaranteed reward as opposed to a chance at one.

But monetary reward shouldn't be the only thing you’re giving. You also need to close the loop and provide respondents with feedback. Consumers want to know that someone is listening to them. Particularly when reaching out to the same group continuously, communicating how their input is changing a company becomes more of a motivator for participation — with the reward as an added bonus.

“My only suggestion for companies to improve the way they handle feedback would be if I and other consumers suggest something and they implement it, it would be great to be notified about it.”

Do you agree? Have you had success with other incentives? I’d love to hear your thoughts.