One phrase we often hear repeatedly from research practitioners is that: “Survey participation is declining and online data quality continues to plague the industry.” After investing a great deal of time, resources, and effort, they are often unsatisfied with the quality of data collected for their research. After all, the research is meaningless if the survey results are inadequate. “How can I effectively increase survey participation and data quality,” they want to know, “without extensive data scrub?”
The first area of focus is often the data collection methodology. The next area of focus, naturally, is the instrument – the actual language used in the survey, particularly for online, direct mail, or mobile surveys where no other guidance is available. Survey incentive is usually the last variable that companies look at as a means to boost response rate or to address data quality issues. Given consumers exist in a culture driven by rewards, it should be natural for survey respondents to expect an attractive incentive in exchange for their time – and rightfully so.
Unfortunately, research practitioners and panel companies alike undermine the significant role that incentives play when it comes to data collection. In fact, some researchers view survey incentives as something that could potentially create bias in their data collection efforts, based on the assumption that respondents will not provide honest answers to survey questions and are only driven by the reward. Although this is not completely incorrect for a small number of research participants, it is, however, not the norm.
As stated earlier, our society is already reward driven. Just look around – in business, in commerce, in our day-to-day life. They are passed off to staff and packaged in wellness programs that encourage pedometer steps and healthy eating habits. They are plaques presented to sales reps reaching quotas. They are the points we earn, the loyalty cards we shuffle in our wallets and the frequent flier miles we stockpile. Even our bonuses and raises are forms of reward and incentive.
In marketing, rewards are indispensable tools. We donate portions of proceeds to causes. We employ games, contests, points, and loyalty cards – all to motivate specific behaviors. Incentives help us broaden word of mouth marketing, increase revenue, shrink advertising cost, expand into new markets, and keep customers coming back for more. Marketers use incentives because they work. So why should this be any different for market research?
Without data, there is no research; without respondents, there is no data; Panel providers must incentivize their respondents fairly and act as good ambassadors for their panelists. Research practitioners, on the other hand, must be realistic and understand that the world has changed. Volunteer survey participants are almost extinct. High earning CEOs or influential individuals receive monetary incentives to give lectures, speeches, or to provide their expert opinions to various organizations. Their opinion is never questioned due to the value of their speaking fees. Survey participation and data quality will continue to plague the research industry until research practitioners understand the value that rewards play in our daily lives. It may be too late for them to realize that without incentives, there are no respondents.