Evidence-Based Innovation Blog

Dangling the Carrot with Business School Survey Incentives

Posted on Sep 4, 2012 3:15:00 PM

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If you are planning to conduct a business school stakeholder survey, it is important to do everything you can to boost your response rate to minimize cost and speed up the turnaround time. This is one of a series of articles to provide tips and tricks to help you get the best possible response rate from your business school market research.


Incentives as an Effective Tool

Depending upon the type of survey and survey audience, offering an incentive is usually very effective in improving response rates. Respondents appreciate receiving something for their time.  

There is a general consensus among market researchers that monetary and non-monetary incentives are an effective way to increase response rates (Fahimi et al, 2006). Incentives are particularly useful in research studies where the response burden is high -- when the respondent has to make an exceptional effort or there is a high risk of survey fatigue.  

Increasing the proportion of the target population that responds to a survey can save costs overall (e.g., thought leadership studies, brand positioning studies) and increase the amount of data collected. An increased number of completed surveys also means a lower margin of error, leading to more reliable conclusions.

Potential Drawbacks

Incentives have some drawbacks. In addition to increasing costs, they may increase the respondent’s expectation of payment for future surveys and affect respondent composition or responses to specific questions.  

The lure of an incentive can create motivation for respondents to find a way to finish the survey even if it means giving incorrect responses or ‘straight-lining,” compromising the quality of the data that is collected.

Another caveat is to keep the incentive appropriate in scope. Overly large incentives can lead to undesirable behavior.  For example, respondents may misrepresent their demographic information in order to not be screened out from the survey. This is more of a consideration when planning research around non-affiliated audiences (e.g., prospective MBA students, corporate employers) and less so with studies of current students or alumni, who are pre-qualified for non-degree or GME experience surveys: (e.g., Student Entry Survey, Student Midterm Survey, Student Exit Survey, Alumni Survey).

Some respondents just want to share their opinion – some will complete a survey to share their information rather than to receive an incentive or they may be barred from receiving an award of value by their employer. Consider making your incentive optional or as an opt-in to address of the concerns of these respondents.

Additionally, some of our clients have strict guidelines around offering incentives. In these situations, it is often advantageous to engage a third-party research vendor to manage the incentive fulfillment.

While the pitfalls of incentives are well documented, they are often required and boost response rates dramatically. 

When to use a survey incentive

Incentives may be useful if a survey has one or more of the following aspects.

  • There is potential for bias due to non-response.
  • The survey places a significant burden placed on the respondent (e.g., considerable survey fatigue with a long interview or other competing surveys targeting the same audience).
  • The target population is low incidence (e.g., prospective MBA students in a limited geographic market).
  • The target population is hard to reach (e.g., corporate employers).
  • The study is a complex one (e.g., Attitudes and Usage studies).
  • Incentives may lead to net cost savings (e.g., focus group recruitment).

How to leverage a survey incentive

Incentives are almost certain to raise your response rates. They enhance the answer to the participant’s WIIFM question (What’s in it for me?). The first rule of providing an incentive is providing something that your target audience would actually want.

The success of a survey incentive depends on how well it appeals to the target audience and how well it is aligned with the unique requirements of the research project. Despite the amount of effort that usually goes into planning a research project, it is remarkable how little of that time is spent thinking about the incentive. Offering an incentive can have a profound impact on the number of respondents.

To optimize the impact of this response optimization technique, business schools need to target the message and offer meaningful incentives. The content and tone of the survey invitations should be crafted based on your audience (e.g., first-time respondents vs. past respondents, employers vs. alumni) and should reflect your audience’s specific interests and needs.

Some of our clients have had success with leveraging incentives as a competition. This is especially useful if the target audience is segmented into teams/clusters, which can then compete against each other to receive the ‘prize’ as a team.

Choosing a survey incentive

Any incentive should pass a common sense test, and should not contradict the sponsoring institution’s core values. For example, a business school should not offer direct cash as a survey incentive for current students.

When the incentive includes a random drawing, the sweepstakes reward must be significant enough to get the respondent’s attention. The lack of a tangible, immediate reward can cause respondents to ignore this incentive scheme. To improve response rates significantly using sweepstakes, the incentive must have enough intrinsic value to the respondent. This means that a single ‘prize’ needs to be large in value or there should be multiple smaller ‘prizes’ to increase the likelihood of ‘winning’.

A general rule for GME prospective student surveys is that an incentive should always be offered to everyone who begins a survey, regardless of whether or not they are screened out before completing the survey. Conversely, completion of the survey should be required to qualify for an incentive with affiliated stakeholder studies.

Incentives must be equally relevant and desirable to the entire target population. If an incentive appeals disproportionately to a given segment of the population, then this group is more likely to complete the survey, skewing survey data. One way around this is to offer respondents a choice of incentives, and then monitor the characteristics of respondents who choose each reward.

Studies increasingly indicate that small incentives (coupons, free or low-valued merchandise) are not as effective as offering to share the survey results and explaining how the feedback will impact your organization’s decisions.

Ideas for Survey Incentives

Distributing a summary (or white paper) of the survey results is a valuable and relatively common type of non-monetary incentive. Targeted respondents for this type of incentive tend to be stakeholders or other professionals who can benefit from, and attribute value to the findings. Stakeholders are often interested in the outcome of the study to which they contributed, while other professionals see value in the competitive intelligence afforded them by a summary of the findings.  

Common incentives include monetary awards, gift certificates, and entries in a prize drawing. Younger audiences tend to be attenuated to the latest, popular electronic gizmo while gift cards or charity donations may drive more responses from older audiences.

Here are some ideas for incentives. You know your stakeholders better than anyone, and by using your own creativity you may come up with other approaches.

  • Drawing: To encourage rapid participation, you could offer to enter the first 20 respondents (or whatever number you deem appropriate) into a drawing for a high-value prize, such as an iPad™ or other popular device at the time. Additional ideas include dinner for two or tickets to sporting events.
  • Charitable Contribution: Consider making a contribution to support relief efforts for a recent calamitous event or to a charity of focus for the institution.
  • Gift cards: Provide $5 gift cards to all participants (if your school allows cash equivalents to be given). Gift cards should be to a place where the participant can purchase at least one item for the amount provided. For example, with a $5 gift card to Starbucks, the user would be able to purchase a cup of coffee.
  • School paraphernalia: Help your students show some school pride! Possible items include backpacks, cups, pens, and T-shirts.

Engaging survey incentives can be a useful and cost-effective technique for maximizing survey response rates when applied correctly. When administered properly, the upfront costs are negated by the increased response rate. However, many schools do not take the time to think about the implications of an incentive on their survey results. Schools and their trusted research suppliers need to ensure that the incentive is aligned with both the target audience and the goals of the study, and should be wary of the potential risks of creating bias.


Please leave a comment about your non-degree or GME program’s tactics for boosting survey response. We would love to hear about your experience and your tips!


Brian Mahoney, the author for this article, is a marketing research consultant and Managing Partner of Percept Research. Brian welcomes your questions and comments.

Topics: Brian Mahoney, Boost Response Rates