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Incentives are often the proposed solution for low survey response rates. After all, what’s the alternative when your ever-so-polite invitation to ‘help us serve you better’ is ignored?  

The fact is, people hate surveys. Even people who are big players in the survey business hate surveys. 

Why? Off the top, they’re often longer than promised, packed with curiously irrelevant questions, and just feel like more effort than they’re worth. Plus, they rarely produce any change that anyone sees or hears about.

Define response rate

So, considering the prevalence of bad attitude around surveys, an incentive of some kind would seem the thing to sweeten the deal and boost response rates. But hang on. Before you jump to an incentive as the solution to your response rate problem, you need to be clear on what ‘survey response rate’ actually means in your contextWhat are you trying to achieve?

  • Do you want to increase the number of people who respond to your survey invitation?
  • Do you want to increase the total number of responses in a particular area of your business?
  • Do you want to improve the representativeness of your survey responses?

Maybe offering incentives isn’t the answer you’re looking forIncreasing responses in a particular area of your business or improving the representativeness of responses suggests an adjustment to your sampling scheme, not your response rate.


See the value of quality survey information. Read How to improve the car buyer’s journey using customer feedback. 

The cost benefit vs the carrot   

If you’re looking at a pure and simple need to increase the number of people who respond to your survey invitation, offering incentives still may not be the answer. From a customer perspective, the decision to take a survey, or not, is a little more complex than weighing up your basic ‘do this and get that’ proposition. It’s a cost / benefit equation, and for your customers, there are numerous personal costs. For example:

  • Time. People are more time stressed now than ever before and are simultaneously encountering more requests for their feedback. Time is money and energy.
  • Effort. Long, complicated surveys actually take a lot of effort to complete.
  • Hassle / boredom. People are understandably irritated when what was billed in the email subject line as a ‘short’ survey turns into a very long survey. Particularly when the survey questions are repetitive.
  • Potential breech of privacy. Many people question promises of confidentiality.
  • Potential for spam and telemarketing. Many people worry their contact details will be sold (and resold over and over again) to unscrupulous marketers.
  • Survey vs sales pitch. With the increasingly common practice of ‘Selling under the guise of research’ people have grown very sceptical about the legitimacy of survey invitations.

There are many very sound reasons why people hesitate to volunteer for surveys. 

Reduce the cost, increase the benefit.   

Once upon a time a survey invitation was flattering – an opportunity to speak and be heard as an individual. Today, digital forums of public opinion are an endless free-for-all and everyone is invited.

In comparison, it takes a very attractive incentive to make a survey worth the time and effort.

But attractive doesn’t necessarily mean monetary. Sometimes just reducing the cost factor in the customer cost benefit equation is attractive enough. For example:

  • Make the survey short, easy and even interactive. In fact, make your survey positively compelling with gamification.
  • Include open-ended questions that invite personal stories and use text analytics to glean insights.
  • Make sure questions are relevant to your stated interest.
  • Be transparent about how personal information will be used and protected.

And then, of course, offer benefits to participation:

  • Demonstrate changes to your way of doing business that are, in fact, a direct response to customer feedback.
  • Respond promptly to any requests for personal follow-up on particular issues.
  • Send a follow-up note of thanks. It’s basic good manners and shows respect for their time and effort.

If, how and when to offer monetary incentives. 

While some form of monetary incentive will surely get you more responses, do you want higher numbers or better-quality feedback? There are many very pragmatic arguments for avoiding monetary incentives (either cash or cash equivalent in the form of vouchers, gift cards or products). Bias is the most obvious.

People who have been paid to complete your survey tend to revert to a personal agenda, described by Dana Severson, writing in, as “Lack of consideration: When a customer has a financial motivation, their objective changes from providing meaningful feedback to providing quick answers, especially when it’s a long survey.” Or there’s the threat of Guilt bias, “While the lack of thoughtfulness is one concern, customers who are incentivised also have a tendency to provide more favourable answers due to the perception of a quid pro quo.” Be advised.

But if you’ve considered all the angles and believe monetary incentives will help drive survey success for you, here are a few tips for best results.

  • Be conservative. All incentives carry the risk of creating bias, but larger incentives come with a greater risk that respondents are in it for the money and not really interested in giving helpful or sincere feedback. So basically, you’re paying for bad information. Better to offer a small ‘token of appreciation for your participation’ – big enough to be meaningful, small enough to be a true ‘token’.
  • Incentivise everyone up front. Offer a small incentive to everyone you’re sampling, rather than a bigger incentive to those who complete and submit the survey. People will believe what they see before they’ll believe what you say you’re going to send them.
  • Offer incentives of equal value. Be sure to offer incentives that will appeal to everyone. Offering a discount voucher for future purchases will only interest those who intend to return and do business with you, excluding those who (for whatever reason) won’t. This is another way bias can creep into your survey results.

Consider your objectives and options 

Without a doubt, incentives do increase survey response rates, but may not be worth the risk of bias in its many guises. And you can’t leap to any solution until you’ve analysed your problem, which could well be a weakness in your sampling scheme.

There’s no simple answer to the question of whether incentives improve survey response rates. But get in touch and let’s talk about your situation. We’ll help you define your needs and develop a survey that generates healthy response rates and delivers the quality feedback you need to make meaningful connections with your customers.