Editor’s note: Mark Hughes is the Manager, Global Payment Solutions at global payments provider hyperWALLET Systems Inc., Vancouver, Canada.
It goes without saying that researchers encounter many problems during the research process. One of their biggest frustrations? Finding people willing to participate in the data collection process. Whether it’s answering a survey, completing a series of tests or taking part in a clinic trial, persuading people to engage in your research is crucial. Without high quality data, you won’t be able to test your hypothesis or validate your findings.
But as we all know, encouraging participation calls for more than enthusiasm – it often requires an incentive.
Incentives 101: What are you offering?
What is an incentive? According to the Market Research Society, an incentive is defined as “any benefit offered to respondents to encourage participation in a project.” A subsidy, gift or reimbursement that is presented to a respondent in return for their input, incentives should be carefully monitored by research ethics committees in order to ensure that they’re used in a reasonable and proportionate manner.
One size doesn’t fit all
This is an important thing to remember when proposing a project compensation approach. Demographics of the expected respondents, how specialized the subject matter is and how time-consuming the data collection process will be are just a few factors you’ll need to consider when deciding if and what kind of incentive is necessary. Ultimately you want to place an appropriate value on the time and input of the respondents without going over budget or burdening your team with unnecessary administrative oversight.
Traditionally, there are two basic ways to incentivize a research project:
- offering something to everyone who participates and
- conducting a free draw where a small number of respondents have the chance to win a prize.
Up until now the latter has proven to be a favorable option for many researchers, especially those conducing survey samples. The reason for this is simple: giving something to every participant can become administratively and financially taxing. There’s just one problem – research shows that respondents prefer to receive a guaranteed incentive, specifically a guaranteed monetary incentive.
“Show me the money”
According to research from Eleanor Singer of the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan, incentives increase response rates to surveys in all modes, including the Web, panels and cross-sectional studies. What’s more, Singer’s research has also found that monetary incentives increase response rates more than gifts, and incentives that are prepaid increase response rates even more than promised incentives or lotteries.
Expanding payment types the hassle-free way
In the past market research firms have avoided cash incentives partially due to the administrative frustrations they entailed. In most cases, issuing a cash incentive as part of the research process has required printing and distributing paper checks – a costly and cumbersome undertaking, particularly for smaller value payments and global incentive programs.
As a result additional incentive options have been utilized by market research firms in an effort to find more convenient payment methods. Common alternatives have included restrictive closed-loop gift cards, vouchers, coupons and/or charitable contributions. While more convenient for the survey issuer, these incentive options do not typically provide participants with their preferred incentive: cold, hard cash.
Fortunately, a new wave of incentive fulfillment systems (like ours here at hyperWALLET) is making it easier and more affordable for researchers to issue cash incentives. This includes a proliferation of flexible cash incentive payment options that are particularly well-suited to the market research sector and its survey participants, including prepaid and virtual cash cards and payment onto already existing debit or credit cards.
Finally research firms can reduce the administrative and transactional costs of their incentive fulfillment at the same time participants can enjoy the benefits of redeeming their incentives via several cash payout options.
But is paying cash for consumer input ethical?
When payments are problematic
Paying a person for their participation in a survey makes sense. After all, it places value on the respondents’ time in a way that’s similar to an hourly wage. That being said, researchers need to be careful about how they issue these payments. Cash payments may have implications in terms of participants’ benefits or taxation, specifically if the compensation is determined to be awarded as income rather than an incentive.
While that may seem like a convoluted case of semantics, it’s actually a very serious concern for ethics committees. As Alderson and Morrow identified in The Ethics of Social Research with Children and Families, the standards of the 1947 Nuremberg Code state that no persuasion or pressure of any kind should be put on research participants. The way in which incentives are presented to research participants is thus extremely important and shouldn’t be open to interpretation. Failure to exhibit this information properly could cause your incentives to exert undue influence on potential participants’ decisions about whether to take part in the research project. In this case, the argument could be made that participants’ consent was not truly freely given but obtained through coercion. The data collected in the process is now considered inadmissible by the ethics committee.
But has your work actually been tainted? Surprisingly enough, it isn’t.
Numerous research studies have shown that incentives, while an effective recruitment tool, do not affect response quality. Papers by Cantor, O’Hare and O’Connor (“The use of monetary incentives to reduce nonresponsive in random digit dial telephone surveys,” 2008); Singer and Kulka (“Paying respondents for survey participation,” 2002); and Singer and Couper (“Do incentives exert undue influence on survey participation? Experimental evidence,” 2009) all offer evidence to this effect.
So yes, money does talk. Money just doesn’t impact what is ultimately said.
Building ethics into your research process
In order for incentives to be considered ethical, they cannot override the principles of freely given and fully informed consent. As such, participants should know before they start the research that they can withdraw from the study at any time without losing their payment. Additional guidelines, as suggested by David Wendler, Jonathan E. Rackoff, Ezekiel J. Emanuel and Christine Grady in their 2002 paper, The Ethics of Paying for Children’s Participation in Research, include:
- developing clear guidelines for when and how payment will be made;
- ensuring you have provided clear and explicit justification for paying participants, to be given to the ethics committee;
- ensuring that participants who choose to withdraw from the research will still receive payment;
- carefully reviewing whether there is a chance that people are consenting because of payment and not because they wish to take part; and
- developing a general policy on describing payments and incentives in the consent process.
The final take-away? The use of cash payments as an incentive to participate in a market research project is a great way to encourage higher levels of engagement, reduce administrative costs and alleviate operational hassles, without having an unintended impact on the quality of your responses.
So what are you waiting for? Go ahead and make Rod Tidwell happy – show ‘em the money!