Research Incentives 101: Setting Appropriate Compensation Header

Research Incentives 101: Setting Appropriate Compensation

Incentives for surveys play a crucial role in market research by motivating study participation. However, designing effective incentives requires careful consideration of compensation levels, incentive types, communication strategies, and ethical factors. This article provides actionable guidance on setting appropriate research incentives to drive recruitment and engagement without compromising research integrity.

Specifically, we discuss:

The Importance of Research Incentives

Incentives serve several critical functions in the research process. At the most basic level, they compensate participants for contributing their time and effort. This recognition of value gained is essential for generating a willingness to participate.   For general population surveys, the incentive may get the person to the survey, but survey design plays a critical role in the quality of the responses. 

Incentives play a major role in motivating specific B2B and health care professional audiences to participate, but those incentives need to be carefully calibrated to the value of the time of those often highly compensated individuals. Since for these specialized audiences, the research topic is typically related to the work that person does, engagement with the topic tends to be high if you can get them to start the survey.   

The key factor is to avoid biasing behavior within a particular study.  You never want to give people a reason to lie or exaggerate their qualifications to gain a higher incentive.  For example, if you pay more for certain demographic groups within a study and people figure that out, they will often pretend that they belong to the group that archives higher compensation.  Similarly, if a participant is given a choice of studies and one study  pays much more than the others due to strict qualification requirements, respondents will often give the answers they feel will get them into the study.  In these ways, poorly structured research incentives can introduce bias, encourage misrepresentation, and damage data quality. 

The key is setting compensation at appropriate levels – high enough to show value for time yet consistent across groups within a study to avoid influencing behavior. Setting fair compensation requires balancing recruitment, engagement, and ethical factors.

Key Factors in Designing Research Incentives

Various types of incentives can motivate research participation. Project specific cash or checks compensate quickly, while points-based reward systems accumulate over time, leading to redemptions. Product samples or free trials also provide value while doubling as test items, and charitable donations can trigger participation via altruism. A helpful tip is to provide meaningful variety when it comes to incentives. While some panel managers may believe that providing PayPal as the only option is sufficient, individuals have diverse financial preferences and shopping habits. Moreover, people perceive incentives differently – some view them as earnings, while others see them as treats or potential gifts. Offer a variety of incentives to attract a wide range of panel participants.

Virtual Incentives’ Market Research Practice Lead, Frank Kelly, recommends “five or six distinct options, each available in both low and high denominations, resulting in a total of ten to fifteen offers per country.” And suggests “including Amazon, PayPal, Visa, a charity option, and a few specialty cards such as a coffee card and a quick-service restaurant card.”

More on Virtual Gift Cards

Factors to consider when shaping optimal incentive design include:

Participant Population & Available Sample

What works for the general population won’t work for specialized audiences. Incentive values should consider the target population. Highly compensated B2B respondents should be managed separately from consumer audiences and their qualifications should be pre-validated.  Scarcer audiences like B2B buyers, doctors, or C-level executives need larger incentives, as these  participants are harder to recruit and require extensive identity and work experience validation.

Study Length & Involvement Level

When designing your research incentives, it’s vital to remember your study’s length. Respondents prefer five to ten-minute surveys.  Surveys over 15 minutes should have a higher number of points per minute than shorter surveys to help maintain engagement.  Most surveys are now completed on mobile phones and surveys over 15 minutes tend to have higher dropout rates, if someone is interrupted and is unable to complete a long survey, they do not get any points.  Multi-stage projects such as product tests or some qualitative activities should include a bonus reward for full participation in all phases of a study.

Research tasks should be evaluated for the required cognitive load.  Projects that require a lot of thinking or use of technology such as apps or photography, disclosure of personal data or location sharing should also involve additional incentives.

Common Mistakes Businesses Make When Designing Research Incentives

When it comes to designing research incentives, businesses often encounter common pitfalls that can hinder the effectiveness of their efforts. In order to optimize the design of research incentives and achieve enhanced outcomes, businesses must be mindful of these common mistakes and make deliberate choices that align with their research requirements.

 More focus on recruitment vs retention

It’s no secret that most panels are turning over quickly. Unfortunately, people don’t tend to stay in panels for more than six months, often due to the incentives. There is value in keeping people in your panel over time because you learn more about them and can develop a richer profile, which is extremely valuable. Companies tend to spend more money on acquiring respondents than on retaining them via incentives.

Frank says, “There should be more of a balanced approach…and a company that’s spending more on recruitment than they are on incentives is clearly doing something wrong.” The money goes toward growing the panel, but they can’t retain them because the incentives aren’t worth their time.

“Hopefully, there will be a shift over time to focus more on keeping the people in panels and enriching that experience and learning more about them over time because well-profiled respondents can be more accurately targeted for studies”.

Limited Research Incentive Offerings

Research must be representative of the population. You won’t have a representative audience if you have an incentive offer that doesn’t appeal to a sizable chunk of the population. Companies don’t have enough variety in their incentive offers to appeal to different population groups.

Choosing the Wrong Research Incentive Amount

One of the hardest challenges companies encounter is choosing the right incentive amount. You don’t want to overpay on a broad study, but at the same time, you don’t want to have an incentive amount so low it doesn’t garner interest. Choosing the wrong incentive amount can lead to low response rates or poor-quality data, so consider choosing an incentive that is fair and proportionate to the research requirements.

It is essential for businesses to carefully consider and choose an incentive that is fair and proportionate to the research requirements. By avoiding these common mistakes, companies can optimize their incentive design and enhance research outcomes.

Best Practices for Research Incentive Design

Beyond tailoring to the study and audience, clearly communicate and design incentives to avoid undue influence. Here are some best practices:

Be Transparent and Set Expectations

The time needed to complete the survey and the incentive value or points should be clearly disclosed before starting. Accurately estimate study length and intensity, and don’t understate the duration to seem more rewarding. Does the participant need to be on camera or upload anything to complete the study? Incentives should always align with actual time spent.

Longer than advertised study times cause frustration in the panel and affects future collaboration.  Additionally, some studies have a very long qualification process such that respondents think that they have completed the study when they were actually disqualified.  Be clear in your communications so that respondents understand the awards that they are owed.  Even though the amounts may seem quite small, our research has shown that respondents get quite upset if they think that they have been treated unfairly. 


Point balances should always be readily available on a panel web portal along with the points required for various incentive redemption offers. If the points expire, that should be clearly stated.

Detachment from Outcomes

Avoid tying rewards directly to responses or outcomes. Connecting rewards to specific answers introduces bias if participants shape answers to earn bigger payouts and can influence them to participate in unethical behavior. 


Offer a range of incentive types to appeal to diverse motivations across study populations. Rotate underperforming offers.

Pilot Testing

Test incentive amounts and types with a sample before the full launch. Testing gauges effective compensation levels for recruitment. Keep in mind that incentive framing shouldn’t feel coercive. Overemphasis on rewards versus contribution makes participation feel transactional.

With careful design, incentives drive engagement without compromising research integrity through undue influence. Pilot testing helps refine offers and levels while monitoring response patterns safeguards against incentive skewing behaviors in live studies.

Ethical Considerations for Research Incentives

It is crucial to screen carefully and watch for suspicious response patterns. When panelists falsely qualify for studies to earn incentives, you run the risk of compromised data. Design your survey incentives to show participants their time and insights are valued. Many research associations provide ethical guidelines on appropriate incentive ranges, so refer to those and seek additional guidance.

Five opportunities to reduce fraud in research

While incentives incentivize, overt emphasis on rewards over participant value risks adverse effects. Voluntary, informed participation preserves research integrity.

Optimizing Research Incentives for Recruitment and Engagement

Market research incentives are important but nuanced in driving recruitment, participation quality, and ethical standards. Our insights on managing expectations, tailoring to audiences, communicating transparently, and avoiding undue influence provide a framework for optimizing incentives.

Best practices for optimizing incentives for surveys include:

Testing Incentives Over Time

Incentives shouldn’t be a “set and forget” process. Frank recommends “eliminating any offers that achieve less than 2% of the redemptions.” Go into your dashboard and see what incentives are most enticing and replace or remove those that aren’t.

Keep Participants on Your Website

Frank also notes a best practice is to “handle the incentive offers and ordering process on your website rather than taking people off to some other website to view a catalog. Remember that most people use a mobile phone, and navigating multiple websites can be difficult.”

Quick Recap:

  • Incentive values should consider population and participation levels – don’t under or overcompensate.
  • Communicate incentive details upfront to avoid disappointments from mismatched expectations.
  • Avoid designs that directly tie rewards to study outcomes, introducing bias.
  • Monitor recruitment and panelist behaviors to identify any potential incentive distortions.
  • Follow established industry guidelines on appropriate incentive ranges and types.

While incentives for surveys should motivate, participants should feel they participate voluntarily and not coerced or manipulated. Research incentives provide crucial motivation for all kinds of research but require thoughtful design and deployment. With careful design and communication, incentives offer fair compensation for time and contribute meaningfully to research. Therefore, aligning your research incentives with participant populations, study demands, and ethical standards enables effective recruitment and engagement without adverse impacts. With participant needs and ethics in focus, research incentives become rewarding exchange vehicles rather than sources of influence.