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Incentives: Maximising research participation by giving people stuff

March 28, 2012
£100 note

As I have said in a previous blog post, there is no point in conducting research if you can’t get enough people to take part.  Therefore, when you want to get some research done a key concern is always finding ways to maximise participation so that you can collect high quality data and improve the validity of your findings. 

Sometimes this is no problem.  The research you want to do is interesting enough or easy enough that people will get involved out of the goodness of their hearts.  People like to be asked their opinions about things, they like to talk about themselves.

But sometimes people need a little more to persuade them to get involved.  So one way of getting more people to take part in your research is to offer them an incentive.  In this case incentive is a technical term meaning something that will encourage people to participate in research and will reimburse them for their participation.  Basically you are giving them stuff in exchange for their input.

The Market Research Society advises that any incentive used should be “reasonable and proportionate” which means that incentives should be considered project-by-project based on the demographics of the expected respondents, how specialist the subject matter is, and how much the respondent will be inconvenienced by participating.  Sometimes you will assess the project and decide that an incentive will not be necessary.  Sometimes respondents will need a little extra persuasion.

There are two main ways that incentives are offered to research participants:

  • Giving something to everyone that takes part
  • A free prize draw where a small number of respondents get a prize

Prize draws tend to be popular incentives for surveys because giving something to all respondents can quickly get expensive (i.e. £5 to 100 survey respondents = £500) and posting all of those fivers out to people would be an administrative nightmare.

Focus groups and depth interviews are a big time commitment for respondents so they may need more persuasion to take part, but you might only talk to ten or twenty people and you probably do it in person, so giving them all the same incentive is more realistic budget-wise and administratively.

So.  Selecting an incentive for your research project is about placing an appropriate value on the time and input of the respondent whilst weighing this up against how much you can afford to spend.  Using a cash incentive may seem like the obvious way to go, but cash is only one of many things you could offer and different types of incentive work better in different circumstances:

Cash payments 

  • When this works best: For members of the public in their capacity as users or potential users of a product or service.
  • Why this works as a reimbursement: Because it literally pays people for their time.
  • Why this encourages participation: Because it places a value on the respondent’s time that is easily compared (often favourably) to their hourly rate in their day jobs.  Because it is a low effort way for respondents to get a bit of extra pocket money, and because it is cash it can spent as the respondent chooses.
  • Top tips: The longer the input will take, or the more specialist the subject, the more cash you will need to give them.  Put yourself in their shoes and think about how much you would need to persuade you to take part.


  • When this works best: For members of the public in their capacity as users or potential users of a product or service.
  • Why this works as a reimbursement: A voucher has a cash value.
  • Why this encourages participation: Because people like to use vouchers to buy themselves a treat.
  • Top tips: Choose your vouchers to appeal to the demographic of expected respondents (i.e. theatre vouchers for arts attenders) or go with something generic with a wide product range like Amazon or John Lewis.  Online vouchers have the added advantage of being quick and cheap for you to purchase and distribute.   Sometimes if you buy vouchers in bulk you can get discounts.

Non-monetary gifts 

  • When this works best: Where you are researching a demographic with a shared interest (i.e. you could offer scuba diving equipment if you are doing research amongst scuba divers)
  • Why this works as a reimbursement: A gift has a cash value.
  • Why this encourages participation: Because the respondents want or need the gift that you are offering.
  • Top tips: Choose your gift to appeal to the demographic of expected respondents but make sure it isn’t something the probably have already, because if they don’t need the gift that might actually put them off responding.   Don’t pick something heavy if you will need to pay for the gift to be posted to the respondent.  Shop around for the best deal.

A free lunch

  • When this works best: For people attending a focus group in a work capacity, community groups, people who spend a lot of time home alone (unemployed / self employed / full-time parents)
  • Why this works as a reimbursement: They would usually need to buy their own lunch.
  • Why this encourages participation: The lunch is likely to be nicer than what they would get for themselves.  It feels a bit fun and sociable to ‘chat over lunch’.
  • Top tips: Be careful about hygeine, health and safety.  Buy from a proper caterer or get a few platters from M&S or similar.  Cater for vegetarians.  Include cake, juice and fruit.

Charitable donations 

  • When this works best: For high net worth individuals and very senior executives.
  • Why this works as a reimbursement: Because cash wouldn’t work – you can’t afford to reimburse them for their time!
  • Why this encourages participation: It appeals to their generous and philanthropic side.
  • Top tips: Present three charities with different remits and allow the respondent to choose one that they would like to make their donation to.  Acknowledge their donation in some way so they know it has been done.

Sharing the research results 

  • When this works best: Where respondents have a particular interest in the findings (i.e. where they are responding in a work capacity)
  • Why this works as a reimbursement: The findings are likely to have value for their business.
  • Why this encourages participation: It reinforces their contribution to expanding knowledge.
  • Top tips: You don’t have to share the full report if it is commercially confidential.  You could prepare a brief overview of headline findings specifically for this purpose.

Thinking of going ahead and offering an incentive in your research project?  Here are my top tips for working with incentives.

  • Make sure that you comply with the Data Protection Act – ask for permission to re-contact respondents to provide them with their incentives and only correspond with them for the agreed purpose.
  • If providing incentives for respondents in person make sure you have enough to give out if everyone turns up.  If incentives will be mailed out later, don’t buy anything until you know exactly how many you will need.
  • If you need cash to buy incentives or as the incentive itself make sure you plan this well in advance – What are the procedures for withdrawing and holding cash in your organisation and what will you need to do with any that you don’t use?  Will your bank give you enough cash in one transaction or will you need to go into the branch / call ahead / provide ID?  What denominations of notes will you need?  Will you be safe carrying large quantities of cash around? 
  • Create a paper trail to ensure that everything is accounted for – get some sort of confirmation (email, signature or receipt) that respondents have received their incentive.
  • Refer to Market Research Society guidelines on administering incentives and prize draws ethically.
  • Be careful when offering your own products or services as an incentive – this is classed as ‘direct marketing’ rather than research and as such is subject to regulations on using research techniques for non-research purposes.
5 Comments leave one →
  1. Julie permalink
    October 4, 2012 2:31 pm

    Thank you for sharing. I’m curious if you have insights or guidelines to share on how to budget for incentives (% of total budget for instance?)?

  2. Lorraine brown permalink
    November 16, 2012 9:25 am

    yes, but what to if if the incentives still does not work?


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