Incentive payments are a standard technique for increasing survey response rate. Whether a straight-up payment ("Get $5 off your next order for taking our survey") or entry into a drawing ("Take our survey for a chance to win $5,000!"), this pitch will be familiar to almost everyone.
The problem is that in many cases, incentives are deployed as a lazy and expensive way to "fix" a broken process without addressing the underlying issues.
If a survey has a low response rate, there's usually some underlying cause. For example:
- The survey takes too long.
- The survey isn't being offered to customers in a way that's convenient.
- The process relies on customers remembering to take the survey (especially surveys printed on cash-register tapes or at the end of a call).
- The company doesn't communicate that it takes the feedback seriously.
- The survey is broken (for example, a web survey which returns errors).
- The survey invitation looks too much like spam or a scam.
- The survey gets in the way of something else the customer wants to do (especially pop-up surveys on web pages).
- The survey doesn't respect whatever genuine desire to give feedback the customer may have.
Rather than trying to identify the underlying issue and fix it, often it's easier to just throw money at customers to try to boost response. What's wrong with that? Here are a few things:
- Incentives can be expensive. I know of companies which spend more on the survey incentives than the survey itself.
- Incentives motivate the customer in the wrong way. Feedback given out of a genuine desire to help is more likely to be sincere and detailed than feedback given to earn a few bucks.
- Incentives are almost never necessary in a transactional feedback program. A well-designed process will normally give a high enough response rate without the use of incentives.
But the biggest sin of survey incentives is that they're often used to hide deeper problems with the survey, problems which make the entire process much less effective. Designing an effective transactional feedback program involves some tradeoffs, but those tradeoffs help ensure that the survey design is carefully focused.
For example, transactional surveys need to be reasonably short to get a good response rate. That means some (possibly difficult) decisions need to be made about which questions to ask and which questions not to ask. But that process also forces the company to carefully consider what the purpose of the survey really is, and what's important to ask. The result is almost always a better survey, precisely because it doesn't include all the things that aren't as useful.
All that said, there are some situations where incentives may be appropriate, especially when you get out of transactional surveys and into the realm of market research. If you're asking the participant to spend a lot of time, participate in a focus group, or otherwise do something more than just a quick favor to the company then you should be offering some compensation.
But for ordinary transactional surveys, incentives are usually a sign of a broken process.