Many qualitative research projects, such as focus groups or in-depth interviews, will offer a monetary incentive to entice people into participating. In fact, unless the research is being conducted for a person’s employer or for a charitable organization, incentives are the only way to get them to give up their time. At the beginning of such a project, the amount of an incentive needs to be established. Some organizations don’t hesitate to offer generous incentives, while others try to save money by offering a low amount. Based on our extensive experience with such projects, we here in The Bunker think that offering low incentives is usually a classic example of being pennywise and pound foolish. Here are five reasons we believe it’s usually best, from a research standpoint, to open up the purse strings and offer more rather than less:

1. Higher Levels of Engagement – Participants who have been offered what they consider to be a generous incentive are more eager and favorably disposed toward participating in a study. People are happier when they feel like they are being well-compensated for their time. That’s just human nature. The increased energy and positive attitude is very important when a person is going to be sitting through a focus group that might last two hours or a telephone interview that could go on for an hour.

2. Faster Recruit Times – Many qualitative research projects are conducted on a very tight timetable with inflexible deadlines. There’s usually a desire on the client’s part to get the results fast. In the case of a focus group, the difference between a quick project turnaround and something that drags out is usually the process of recruiting participants. A low rate of people willing to participate can force you to put more costly resources into recruit and/or reschedule the groups. Oftentimes, the incentives have to be raised midway through the process. We have found through our recruiting efforts at our Syracuse, NY call center, that high incentives make people more likely to agree to participate, or to at least entertain the idea before hanging up. Since an unproductive recruit can completely hamstring a qualitative project and throw timelines off, it only makes sense to reduce that risk through higher incentives.

3. Fewer No-Shows – What if you held a focus group and nobody came? Okay, that’s an unlikely worst case scenario, but an otherwise well-planned and executed focus group can be ruined by light participant turnout. In some cases, make-good groups have to be scheduled, which nobody wants. In the case of in-depth interviews, few things are more frustrating than calling an interview participant at a pre-arranged time only to find out that they are not available. High incentives can’t eliminate those problems completely, but they certainly help. It goes without saying that people who are willing to back out of a commitment that will pay them $40 will be much more hesitant to pass up $150.


4. Long-Term Savings – It may seem counterintuitive, but committing more money up front for incentives will usually result in lower overall project costs. The hours saved from having a higher incidence rate with recruiting calls and a reduced need to over-recruit to make up for no-shows will often more than cancel out the increased incentive costs. It is sometimes hard to convince people of those savings at the beginning of a project because they are anticipated, whereas high up-front incentive costs are immediate, but having worked on projects with both low and high incentives, we in the Bunker can vouch for the fact that the savings involved with the latter are very real.  

5. Positive Associations for the Research Sponsor – Every organization that conducts market research tells participants that they value their opinion, and most are sincere when they say it. Those who pay substantial incentives put their money where their mouth is and prove it, creating positive associations with the organization (assuming the research isn’t blinded) for a long time thereafter. On the other hand, offering an incentive that is seen as cheap or stingy can have the opposite effect. What kind of message does it send when people are asked to give up an hour or more of their time for a $10 gift card? At best, such an incentive would fail to generate interest, at worst it can insult the potential participant and leave a bad taste in their mouth. Why risk that?