What are research incentives and why should I pay them?

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Pay people to take part in research?


This might seem a little odd if it’s something unfamiliar. But it’s very normal practice to offer people some form of incentive.


Read time: 2 mins


tl;dr including an incentive with your research is not only good ethics but is a way to improve the quality of your data, therefore help you make better decisions.


Incentives are, in fact, an ethical and moral part of the research process. Ethics is very important in research (not least due to a recent scandal in the world of psychology – ref a recent NewYorker article). 


Boils down to this…if participants are going to give you their time, you really ought to recompense them properly.


Why pay an incentive?

As I’ve said above, it’s the right thing to do; a question of morals and good ethics. People are giving you something (their time) so you should be giving them something in return.


It’s also a way to improve the quality of your data, by ensuring your sample is of higher quality.


How so?


Incentives encourage people to take part in research. Often, the incentive is working on the kind of people who might not typically take part in research. These are exactly the kind of people who you want to participate.


Encouraging more people to take part, and more people who wouldn’t ordinarily take part, helps make sure your sample is more representative – ie. it’s not just taken from the small sub-group of people who will always want to do research.


Does this make sense?


This improved representation and diversity is what makes your data much, much better quality. It’s never about the huge number of people who filled in your survey, it’s always about how representative your sample is. The same applies to interviews and focus groups. 


Representative of what?

For your sample, you really want a good spread of people from within your research ‘universe’. No, not going metaphysical here, your research universe is a description of the people who are in the scope of your research.


Eg. you run an online dog-sitting business. Your universe might be ‘dog owners’ or maybe ‘dog owners who need someone to sit their dogs at least occasionally’ (obviously you might have a separate universe of people who are ‘willing to sit dogs’). 


So, if you were doing research among dog owners who need someone to sit their dog, you would offer an incentive to help encourage better representation of that universe. By doing this you would hopefully include some of those dog owners who don’t usually have time to answer questions about dog-sitting – the very busy ones, with lots of dogs and no one to sit them, ie. the very people you’re trying to help!


So incentives help improve your sample representation which helps improve your data which helps improve your decision-making.


What incentive should I use?



Always best and works well with pretty much everyone. One exception – in a B2B situation cash can be problematic so you can use that cash to make a charity donation on behalf of your participant.


Surveys can get very expensive if you’re paying each person to take part (although I recently got £20 for completing a LinkedIn survey!) so typically a prize draw works well for a survey. Make sure, of course, you have a transparent process for selecting winners and that you are using compliant terms and conditions.


What about free giveaways?

According to the UK’s Market Research Society (MRS) Code of Conduct (!).


Members must ensure that client goods or services, or vouchers to purchase client goods or services, are not used as incentives for projects conducted for research purposes.


If you do, your research is deemed to be ‘direct marketing’ by the MRS (oh, the shame!). For professional reasons, I follow the MRS code and so projects I run will adhere to the code.


But if you’re running your own research, the cost of incentives can be a major contributor to the overall fee and make research (or whatever it’s deemed to be) even more prohibitive.


So, if you’re a startup or small business, you would be very much forgiven for offering free products, discounts, vouchers etc.


But! Be very aware of what your incentive might be doing to the representation (therefore quality) of your data. Eg. if you offer free products, you’ll be unlikely to get people to take part in your research who don’t want your product. This might be really important if you’re carrying out research to understand new segments of audiences or if you’re targeting early mainstream customers and moving on from early adopters.


Be pragmatic. Do what’s right for your business, your brand and the stage and situation you’re in.

If you would like to discuss anything related to incentives, or any other aspect of the research process then please get in touch.

Would you like to learn ‘How to Run Research’?

Would you like to learn how to run your own research?

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