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Survey Incentives? Wrong Motivation, Wrong Outcome

Generally speaking, I don't approve of using incentives to get responses for a survey. 

In my experience survey incentives create the wrong motivation, set the wrong expectations, and deliver the wrong outcomes. 

Instead, survey designers should strive to communicate the value of their research to drive people to answer their questions. 

Let me show you what I mean with an example first. 

Incentive Example: Wood Chopping

I recently hired a dozen workers. I divided them at random into two groups of six and took them out to the woods, where I took group A to a clearing with several fallen pine trees.

I gave them tools and asked them to clean, cut, and stack the wood from the fallen trees. We agreed on a rate of payment of $15 per hour, and they went to work.

I took group B to another clearing and asked them to strike the fallen trees with the blunt end of an axe repeatedly. For their "work," I agreed to pay them $15 per hour as well.

Twenty minutes later, group A was happily working, but group B had stopped. Our agreed upon rate of $15 per hour was no longer sufficient to motivate them to do work that seemed pointless. Before they would go back to work I had to double their wages. 

Twenty minutes later group A was happily working, but group B had once again stopped.

You get the picture. There is more to motivation than extrinsic rewards!

The Lesson for Survey Incentives

Research has shown the main reason people do surveys is because they think their input is going to affect something they care about.

Ultimately, surveys are about communication and relationships as well as objective data analysis.

In most cases the respondent has a connection with the surveyor: customer-supplier, consumer-vendor, shared interest in a topic, or the desire to listen and be heard.

Leverage these relationships to provide the motivation to do a survey.

You can tap into this motivation by:

  • Carefully designing your survey with the respondent in mind
  • Committing yourself to USE the information provided
  • Offering to share the information obtained with those participating
  • Communicating back to your audience on how the information they provided was used
  • Connecting to the respondent in any way you can, including responding to comments they make

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Breaking the Incentive Habit

I often hear from clients that incentives have worked well for them in the past, and it's true that they can be a useful way to increase your survey response rates

While it's true that I don't care for incentives, I admit I have used them.

We are all creatures of habit. If respondents have been trained to receive something for doing a survey (as is the case with most opt-in email lists available), the incentive becomes a requirement.

But we can all help to break the incentive habit by providing proper motivation for doing our surveys.

Connect with your audience, be clear about how you plan to use the data you're collecting, and you'll create a culture of reciprocity that might just break your incentive habit. 

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