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How to incentivise your respondents in order to obtain quality data

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If you do an online search for ‘survey prizes’, you’ll find plenty of links that are focused on the wrong end of that equation: the rewards.

“Answer Surveys, Earn Rewards. Easy,” says one. “Surveys for Money,” says another. “Earn Up to £25 per Survey,” promises yet another one.

We all know that respondents who don’t have the right motivation to complete a survey can provide lower-quality data because they don’t care about the responses. Offering survey incentives or prizes, however, can be a great help in collecting responses without jeopardising the reliability of your results. Let’s see how.

SurveyMonkey Audience is our DIY market research platform to get real-time feedback from people around the world.

The use of survey prizes, also known as incentivising, is a common method of obtaining complete responses in online surveys. Survey creators offer an incentive (often money or a gift) in exchange for the completion of the questionnaire.

Unfortunately, many people also associate rewards with low-quality surveys completed by serial responders who are solely focused on receiving the prize at the end.

So the main issue here is how effective these rewards actually are.

The truth is that offering the right kinds of rewards to the right kinds of respondents can help you encourage hard-to-reach audiences to complete your survey. One option is to offer indirect rewards that benefit a third party, such as a charity, rather than your respondent. (We’ll talk more about that below.)

SurveyMonkey Contribute is where we donate $0.50 to a charity of our respondents’ choice every time they complete a questionnaire.

However, incentivising also comes with several risks.

The following are some examples of how survey prizes can adversely affect survey results when they are not used appropriately.

Your reward may be attracting the wrong kind of respondent. For example, let’s suppose you run a pet shop and want to know how to improve various areas of your service, such as hours, staffing and online presence, etc. You need pet owners in your area to respond to your survey and, if you don’t know who you’re sending your survey to, you may end up contacting people who will take your reward even if they don’t have pets.

Beware of people who are only looking for a reward. In the survey industry, they are known as ‘satisficers’: people who just rush through questionnaires to collect a reward and may even misrepresent themselves to be able to participate in more surveys.

Survey rewards are not a silver bullet. Academic research suggests that people who received a reward for completing a task will expect another reward the second time you ask them to do the same thing. This could impede your attempts to run successive surveys with the same group of people. So use rewards when you need a quick one-off survey but avoid them when your project requires a series of similar surveys over time.

Incentives can be counterproductive. Psychology researchers have shown that incentives, and cash in particular, can demotivate people instead of incentivising them to do something. Receiving responses from people who are really not that interested could impair the quality of your data.

Rewards can introduce bias to your results. Let’s suppose you offered a discount on your hotel rates to guests who filled out an exit survey. Those who didn’t enjoy their stay are probably not interested in coming back to your hotel and hence don’t care about the discount. So you’d end up missing out on some important feedback from the type of customers whose experience you need to improve the most.

We did a whole lot of reading so you don’t have to. Check our blog if you want to know more about academic research on survey rewards.

As we have seen, survey prizes are not always a good idea since they may worsen the quality of your results. To work out whether you actually need to use them, you can ask yourself the following questions:

What is my target population? If you already know your audience (existing customers, for example) and you have access to them, offering a reward may simplify things for you. You need to encourage those invaluable respondents to complete the survey. But if you’re sending your survey to just about anybody, the cost of offering rewards to each of them may not be justified.

What’s my relationship with survey respondents? You don’t need to offer prizes to people who already feel compelled to respond, such as students who receive a survey from their lecturer. But if you only depend on respondents’ goodwill, sweetening the deal with a reward may get you more responses.

Are my respondents interested in my topic? People who are invested in or involved with a particular issue want their voices to be heard. For example, neighbours will probably respond to a questionnaire about the need for a new park in their area. They won’t need extra encouragement to share their opinions.

How long and complex is my survey? If you’re asking people to fill out 10 pages of questions or more than a few open-ended questions that require reflection and a few minutes of writing, it might help to offer a little something extra to show them that you value their time.

There are a couple of additional scenarios where survey prizes may be particularly effective:

Specific groups that are hard to reach. You may be trying to reach rare populations who don’t have a lot of time to respond to a survey, such as doctors and other professionals.

‘Non-responders’. These are the people who have already received your survey but have not got round to answering it yet. If you still need more responses to achieve an adequate sample size, you can approach these people again and offer an extra incentive for completing the questionnaire.

In any event, you shouldn’t forget that there are other ways to increase your survey response rates without having to offer a reward in return. You can read some suggestions in this help article about a survey’s response rate.

Once you’ve decided that you want to use survey prizes, there are a few more decisions you need to make: Are you going to use incentives that are monetary or non-monetary? Promised or prepaid? Prize draw or individual? Direct or indirect?

Monetary incentives are cash, cheques, money orders, gifts cards, and discount vouchers or codes.

Non-monetary incentives include ‘thank you’ gifts such as a notebook or a travel mug.

Cash and other monetary incentives are more powerful in terms of achieving higher response rates. And the more you offer, the more responses you will receive.

To decide how much you need to spend, consider your budget constraints and the target population. For example, professionals and students place different levels of value on their time and getting the former to respond will cost you more.

If you choose a non-monetary reward, check that it is appealing to your respondents. For example, you probably don’t want to offer baseball caps as a reward for taking a survey during an industry convention where it’s likely that dozens of exhibitors are giving caps away to anyone who walks by.

The respondents receive their rewards before they even complete the survey.

Only respondents who have completed the questionnaire receive the reward.

Although it may sound counterintuitive, research shows that prepaid incentives increase response rates more effectively than promised ones. Obviously, this is a more costly method since you have no guarantees that everyone who receives a reward will complete the questionnaire. It is also harder to implement with online surveys than a promised reward, which can take the form of a gift certificate delivered via email or a gift sent through the post.

You can use a prize draw, raffle or lottery to award the actual prize to a smaller number of people.

You give a reward to every survey participant.

Individual incentives offer a more direct reward to every survey-taker, but prize draws could be an option when your budget is limited. However, there are a couple of complications: firstly, their effectiveness has not been proven; and secondly, they imply legal requirements that vary by country and region, so you need to seek legal advice to make sure you’re doing them correctly.

These include all monetary or non-monetary rewards that the respondent receives and they come with the risks that we’ve explained above.

These provide you with an alternative that can increase response rates without encouraging satisficers. Instead of rewarding the respondent directly, you offer to make a charity donation in their name.

The advantage of indirect rewards is that the respondents don’t rush through a survey out of pure self-interest. And you receive more responses than if you hadn’t offered a reward.

As you can see, survey prizes are an effective tool that can help survey creators once they have done some careful planning and evaluation of the pros and cons. Although, admittedly, this tool carries some risks, it also brings benefits.

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