The Psychology of Motivation: Rewarding Participants

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If you are conducting market research in the UK, it is important to be familiar with the MRS guidelines for administering incentives and prize draws. This document outlines the law surrounding market research incentives, including what can and cannot be offered.

Among other regulations, the MRS state that incentives should not require participants to spend any money – therefore discounts cannot be offered as rewards. The rules also explicitly forbid the practice of sugging (selling under the guise of research). This means that discounts, vouchers or products sold by the research client cannot be used as incentives. Participants must also not be promised gifts in the form of research materials or tested products – as this is considered direct marketing promotion.

While these regulations are strict, they also leave a lot of room for creativity and freedom when deciding on participant rewards. There are three main considerations for market research incentives, each of which has a direct impact on participant motivation and engagement. These are: type, value and frequency.

1. Types of Research Incentive

The type of incentive has a significant effect on participants and their frame of mind while completing market research, as well as the kind of participants attracted to your study. The following incentives are the most popular choices by researchers:

Cash incentives – The broadest reward of all. Basic monetary incentives are attractive to all – which means that you will be likely to attract a large range of participants. However, you will also most likely encounter ‘professional research participants’ who aim to make a living from taking part in market research studies. Beware of this type of participant, as they may not be entirely truthful in screening questionnaires.

Vouchers – Coupons are a viable alternative to cash incentives and can help filter out some of the low quality participants who may be taking part for the wrong reasons.

There are two approaches to coupon incentives. The first is an ‘open coupon’. These are coupons to larger retailers that offer participants more choice in redemption – e.g. Amazon, Tesco etc. ‘Closed coupons’ are for more specific specialist retailers, often closely associated with the product or service being researched. Closed coupons ensure only a specific audience apply to become research participants. But remember, coupons cannot be for the company commissioning the research.

Charity Donations – A recent trend in market research incentives is to make a donation to a chosen charity for each participant. This approach almost entirely removes the ‘professional research participant’ demographic and fosters a positive, constructive relationship with participants. However, it is worth remembering that like any type of incentive – it is possible that the sample may possess similar qualities.

Research Results – In very rare situations, no financial incentive is required at all. Instead, participants may be genuinely interested in the results of the research. It is more likely to encounter this scenario in a B2B scenario, when researching potential markets or suppliers. If the research results will be mutually beneficial to both you and your participants, consider this option to save on the costs of financial incentives.

2. Incentive Value

Placing an exact value on research rewards can be a tricky task. There is a fine line to walk between value for money and increasing engagement. In general, the higher the perceived value of the reward, the more likely a participant is to engage with the research.
There are two approaches to assigning a value to market research incentives. The first is to provide a guaranteed incentive to every participant. The second is to enter all participants into a free prize draw for a larger incentive.

If you opt to enter participants into a free prize draw then the increase in value must counteract the lower likelihood of being rewarded for the time. However, if you do not wish to offer a large prize, then perhaps consider combining the two methods. Offer a small guaranteed incentive for taking part, but a slightly larger one for the winner of the prize draw.

Obviously, the value of the incentives will depend on the type of research carried out, as well as the length of time it takes. For example, the incentive for a half hour live chat focus group should be greater than the incentive for a survey that takes the same time. This is because a live chat focus group requires participants not only to be available at a particular time, but engage more with both other participants and moderators.

The following is a small sample of how incentives could be valued within a market research study:

  • 30 minute survey - £5
  • 1 hour online focus group - £20
  • 3 day diary study with two entries per day / £5 per diary entry (totalling £30) / £10 extra for completing all entries

3. Incentive Frequency

The final factor which must be considered when creating incentives is the frequency with which participants are rewarded. For one-off research studies, there may be a simple answer to this question – at the end of the research. But for longitudinal research methods such as customer panels and communities, the decision becomes much more complicated. The available options are:

A single reward – Providing participants with a single large reward at the end of the research timeline may reduce administration, but it also increases the likelihoods of drop-outs. As participants wait to see the reward for their invested time over the course of several weeks or months, more and more may either leave or worse, become disengaged with the research.

An incentive per activity – Where there are a few activities over a long span of time, you may consider rewarding participants for each activity completed. This ensures that participants remain constantly aware of the fruits of their labour and engage with each subsequent activity.

An incentive per group of activities – Of course, sometimes it may not be possible to reward participants after every activity – particularly if you are running a significant number of tasks. In this case, consider grouping activities and rewarding participants after each group of activities (e.g. every three surveys or every two diary entries).

The bonus – If rewarding participants after each activity (or group of activities) also consider including a completion bonus. This is an extra incentive awarded to all participants who complete every research activity. This ensures participants remain engaged and actively interested in each stage of the research – as well as ensuring that tasks are not missed.

Remember, no two pieces of research are the same. Different tasks, time constraints and research methods all contribute to the uniqueness of incentive design. But, to successfully create engaging research with incentives that motivate participants to actively participate in tasks, you must consider the three key incentive attributes: type, value and frequency.

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