How to get market research incentives right.

Published 03 Feb 2021 13 minute read

Online qual
Recruitment

What is the most important part of qualitative research? The topic guide? The moderator? The online platform or physical venue?

All of these are vital components, but none so much as the people who take part. Phyllis Macfarlane, former chair of the MRS says “There is nothing more important to the quality of qualitative research than the recruitment of the respondents.”

In an ideal world, research participants would take part for the joy of being able to express their opinions, or out of altruism: wanting to help the brands that they love, or to make a difference by contributing to social, medical or political research.

But, here in the real world, people want - and deserve - tangible physical and financial incentives, as well as social and emotional benefits, if they are to give up their time and engage with research projects.

Market research incentives are more than just a necessary evil, or an extra cost that you have to budget for. Rather they should be seen as a just reward for the commitment, effort and care that people put into your project.

Getting incentives right is more of an art than a science; you don’t want to offer so little that nobody takes part, or so much that it blows your budget, or that people will consider trying to deceive recruiters about their credentials, to get selected.

Based on our years of experience in recruiting participants for qualitative research projects, we have derived a set of principles to help you get the balance just right:

1. Match the incentive to the project.

How much work do you need the participant to put in, how disruptive will it be to their lives, and how appealing is your topic?

People are often happy to take online quant surveys for pennies, but if you are asking them to attend a face-to-face focus group on a winter’s evening, you will need to offer considerably more.

Similarly, if you are asking people to come and taste some new chocolate bars, you can probably offer a smaller incentive than if you are asking them to talk about concepts for washing powder.

If your project is an online research community, running over a number of days, weeks or even months, you can stagger your incentive payments according to how much has been completed, so as to boost engagement and reduce attrition.

In longer-term communities, you can add additional payments or prizes as you go through the activities, such as a prize for the funniest photo, or the best diary entry; this will really get participants thinking and stimulate their creativity.

2. Match the incentive to the participant.

How hard will it be to recruit your participants, and how are they likely to respond to the amount you are offering?

If you are targeting time-poor professional people, or people in very specific roles, or with niche behaviours, you will need to pay more than if you are targeting students, who are plentiful and typically have both more time and less money than other groups.

This is not about attaching a value to the time of one group over another, but about being pragmatic and getting the people you need to attend.

3. Take advice.

If you are working with a vendor, such as a research agency, or platform, fieldwork or sample provider, they can draw on their experience to advise you on the right level of incentive for your project.

As economic conditions change, so do incentives, and vendors will have a finger on the pulse of just how much is needed to motivate the type of participants you need.

4. Incentives don’t always have to be financial.

Let’s face it, the money is the main event, and for quant surveys, that’s fine. But for qualitative research, and especially for online research communities, where you are asking people to come together, get to know each other and have fun doing creative activities, you get a much better outcome if you have got people who aren’t only there for the money.

It’s important to describe your project in appealing terms at the recruitment stage, and then to follow through with activities that live up to the description.

Just because you have paid people to take part doesn’t mean you can then subject them to endless, boring, ill-considered tasks. Ideally, a community will tap into participants’ passions or be around a topic that is significant to them or is aligned with their values.

For example, groups of people who have the same hobby or interest, or who have suffered from the same medical condition are likely to be keen to take part, and will be incentivised by the idea of sharing with like-minded others.

5. And financial incentives don’t always have to be cash.

Rather than giving everyone a small amount of money, a prize draw that gives a few people the opportunity to win a larger sum can be appealing and enable you to use limited resources in a creative way.

Sometimes participants feel uncomfortable about taking cash for themselves, especially if the project is for the public good in some way, such as medical or social research.

There are also some B2B situations in which participants may be not permitted to accept cash. In these cases, offering the same amount as a charity donation can be a great alternative. You can offer a charity of the participant’s choice, or if you are dealing with large numbers, you may wish to offer a selection of pre-chosen charities to save on the admin.

Finally, if you are involved in product testing research, you can sometimes permit participants to keep the remainder of the sample they have been trying. This probably works best for luxury brands – cosmetics, for example – but is less effective if you are trialling own label baked beans.

6. Stick to the guidance.

You need to be careful about the kind of market research incentives you offer. The MRS has a good guide here for incentives for research and non-research (i.e., those that use research techniques for marketing) projects.

In short, you can offer money, prize draws, charitable donations or partially used test products. You can only offer client’s products or client branded incentives in non-research projects.

7. Think about the practical side.

How will you deliver the incentives? If you are working with a recruiter, panel provider or other sample source, it is likely that they will already have a mechanism set up to deliver incentives.

If you are conducting face-to-face research, you can give cash on the day – again, venues will usually handle this for you, together with any releases you need the participants to sign.

If you are conducting an online research community, with a more complex incentive structure, the platform will create participation reports to help you assign levels of incentive, which you can then pass on to your recruiters to administer.

Overall, it’s important to get market research incentives right.

People deserve to be rewarded for giving up their time and putting effort into your project. Incentives are one of the four pillars of great online qual together with recruitment, design and engagement. If you’d like to find out more about the art of incentives or any other aspect of online qualitative research.


If the pandemic is forcing you to be more creative and look at new ways of delivering on your research brief, be that tactical or strategic, let us help.

You can take advantage of a FREE discovery call so we can help you understand how online qual can work for your project in practice.

Over the last decade we’ve worked with over 400 agencies and brands running everything from foundational studies, new packaging or product tests to co-creation workshops – we love online qual  and we know you will too.

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