A few years ago, EA Consultants was surveying patients in healthcare facilities in a small village in Tanzania. We offered each respondent a generous $10 for participating in our forty-minute questionnaire. Many of the village residents saw our visiting international consultants distributing the money out to our surveyors and consequently made the assumption that foreigners handing out money signified that it was their job to present the health care facilities in the best light. After a day of surveying, we realized that this was skewing the results of the survey and quickly changed strategies. We took the international consultants away from the field research and had only local surveyors handle incentives, explaining the money was only a payment to compensate for their time.
At EA Consultants, we have been conducting surveys for the past 12 years; as a result, we have learned the importance of getting the incentives right when trying to encourage people to participate in our surveys. Incentives are important as they bring an increased number of respondents to the survey, thus reducing sampling bias as well as surveyor time. Without incentives, the individuals who make the choice to participate in the survey are likely to have several things in common, perhaps they share personality traits or have schedules that allow them to take the time out of their day to participate in a survey without receiving anything in return. Additionally, providing an incentive changes the dynamic of the interaction between the surveyor and the participant. When the participant has accepted an incentive, they no longer feel as if they are doing a favor for the surveyor; the surveyor and the participants become equals as they have each provided the other with a tangible service. Subsequently, the participant becomes more likely to provide the most helpful answers. However, as in the case of Tanzania, incentives can backfire if respondents feel pressure to provide the “right” answers.
Over the years, we have developed some tips that can help you decide which incentive is ideal for your next survey. Our project in Tanzania is an example of a time when the incentive was skewed to appear transactional. In this particular situation, our solution to this problem was for the foreign women in charge of the survey to stay in the background. We also suggest ensuring that your incentive is logistically feasible. For example, it may be a natural inclination to hand out t-shirts or hats, but objects like this may be difficult to cart around and challenging to store. And don’t be afraid to get creative with your incentives. EA Consultants is currently conducting a survey of Latin American Immigrants in the United States; for this particular project we researched local restaurant hang-outs for the populations we are conducting research on. Our plan is to sit in these restaurants and offer one free food item for completing our survey. This will increase restaurant traffic as well as attract new members from the community to our surveys.
The most important tip when choosing how to incentivize participants of a survey is to know your audience. It is nearly impossible to provide an incentive to your participants if you have not put yourself in their shoes. For example, at EA, regarding our most recent survey, our team had a discussion about whether or not to provide a $10 metro card as incentive versus a $10 ride sharing gift card. Most of the people in the room would have preferred the gift card over a metro card. However, we had to decide whether the same could be said for our participants; do they have the app? Do they have smartphones? Would the longer distance that a $10 metro card provides be more useful in their lives. Ultimately, we chose the metro card as we came to the conclusion that it would provide the most utility for our participants.