How Much Should You Pay a Research Participant?

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There’s no question incentives are an effective way to encourage participation in surveys and research studies. Not only can incentives improve response rates, they are often the reason people are motivated to participate in your research in the first place. Determining how much of an incentive to pay research participants, however, can be tricky.

It boils down to determining how much a participant’s time is really worth. To do that, it’s a good idea to ask yourself the following questions.

What Is the Research Participant’s Level of Effort?

Simply put, the level of effort is the amount of time it takes someone to complete your survey or participate in your research study. An accurate estimate of time is critical — underestimating how long it will take to answer involved questions or failing to factor in things such as travel time, for example, will cost you. Participants who feel their time is not being fairly compensated will abandon your study, placing your research firmly back at square one.

What Kind of Research Participant Are You Trying to Attract?

The type of research participants you need is another important consideration. Does your research require high-level executives or college students? In terms of compensation, there’s a big difference between what amount those two audiences will find motivating. Ask yourself what your ideal participant’s time is worth. Then price your incentives accordingly.

What Type of Reward Works Best With the Amount Offered?

A $5 incentive to spend at Starbucks is quite different from a $5 incentive to spend at Nike. The Starbucks reward gets you a cup of coffee, which may encourage people to participate because it allows them to get a free treat. The Nike reward falls far short of covering a higher-priced, brand-name pair of shoes or a hoodie, so that’s likely to be a non-starter. Be sure to make your incentive compelling. If your budget is small, offer cash to spend at fast-food restaurants or on Amazon, so the money paid to research participants will feel actionable.

What Is the Value of the Research?

This is perhaps the most important question of all for researchers. Marketers who are hoping to entice qualified leads further down the funnel, for example, may want to offer a more substantial incentive. Potential SaaS customers who are asked to share their opinion on new product features or launches will expect to be decently compensated for their participation. Similarly, academic researchers in need of a specific group of participants — such as women who are over 35, have children under 3 years of age, and work full time in Washington state — will increase their chances of finding their target audience if the reward is more than adequate.

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