Research incentive programs — benefits, examples and instructions
Expertly recruit and motivate research participants using research incentive programs. Here's how.
Recruiting the right quantity and representative sampling of participants can be challenging. A less-than-optimal pool of research subjects can negatively impact the accuracy of the research and any conclusions drawn from it.
That’s where research incentive programs come into play.
What are research incentives?
Research incentives are rewards offered to people in exchange for their participation in a study. Most often, these incentives are financial rewards that demonstrate appreciation for participants’:
- Value brought to the study
Research incentives are used in all types of studies, including:
- Market research within all types of companies and industry organizations
- User experience (UX) research, primarily within tech companies
- Clinical research within healthcare institutions and organizations
- Academic research within universities
Participants can be asked to partake in a wide spectrum of remote and in-person research studies, such as:
- Web surveys, polls or questionnaires
- Focus groups
- User testing
- Clinical trials
- Observational studies
6 benefits of research incentives
Research incentives can make the difference between attracting and engaging a representative sample of participants within the designated time limits — or not. Research incentives help:
- Attract high-quality, committed participants
- Capture harder-to-reach or more mobile populations
- Reach a statistically significant representative sampling of the overall population
- Fairly compensate participants in return for their time, expertise, opinions or feedback
- Overcome concerns or objections about participating in a research study — for instance, extensive time commitments or compromised personal privacy
- Increase participants’ investment in and engagement with a study
For researchers and study participants alike, it’s often a win-win.
The use of incentives in research: a short history
Paying human subjects to join research studies dates back to at least the early nineteenth century, according to The Journal of Clinical Investigation.
The Journal references the first-documented instance of research incentives: In the 1820s, William Beaumont, a pioneering gastric physiologist, paid $150 to a patient suffering from a poorly healed abdomenal gunshot wound, along with food, clothing and lodging. In exchange, Beaumont was permitted to examine his stomach contents for a year. In 1900, Walter Reed, a U.S. military surgeon known as the namesake for Walter Reed Medical Center, paid study participants $100 in gold for their permission to be bitten by mosquitoes infected with yellow fever. If they contracted the disease, they received an additional $100.
Today, it’s routine to offer compensation for participating in research studies. (And, fortunately, research studies have become less risky.)
Examples of research incentives
There are many different ways to incentivize research participants:
- Cash payments (physical or digital)
- Prepaid cards (physical or digital)
- Gift cards (physical or digital)
- Entry into a contest or prize drawing
- Coupon codes or discounts
- Physical gifts or product giveaways
- Charitable donations on behalf of the participant (especially if the participant can select their own cause to support)
- Course credit (for students in university studies)
Any of these research incentives can be effective. What works best for any individual research study depends on the:
- Unique study
- Researchers’ goals and objectives
- Research methodology
- Participants and their motivations
What’s the best research incentive: money or gifts?
In general, cash and cash equivalents, such as prepaid cards (pre-loaded with a specific dollar amount to spend anywhere) and gift cards, tend to be the most widely used incentives — and the most effective.
Although money can be the most costly incentive for researchers and project managers to offer, it’s always a powerful motivator and tends to yield the highest response rates. A study titled The Use and Effects of Incentives in Surveys, conducted by Eleanor Singer of the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan, concluded that:
- Monetary incentives yielded higher response rates than other gifts.
- Prepaid incentives yield significantly higher response rates than promised incentives or no incentives.
Why are money and prepaid cards so effective at boosting study participation?
- Transparency — Giving money is simple and straightforward. People know exactly what they’re going to get, without any extra hoops to jump through. Money is also guaranteed. Unlike a contest or prize drawing, participants won’t harbor doubts about whether they’ll win — and should even bother trying.
- Immediacy — Promised incentives (“you’ll get X at some point in the future”) are generally less effective than instant gratification. Cash delivery is easy to facilitate in both in-person and remote studies. Payment can be made instantaneously, sometimes directly within individual checking accounts, which many study participants appreciate.
- Flexibility and convenience — Study participants can take those funds and apply them as they see fit.
Issues to watch out for
As beneficial as research incentives can be, they’re not without their share of controversy.
Some people object to research incentives over ethical concerns about coercion.
This is especially true in clinical research in which the risks associated with trying a new medical treatment, for example, are elevated.
There are valid concerns that research incentives could influence a study participant into accepting a higher, perhaps not-fully-understood and long-term risk for an immediate, short-term pay-off.
(Institutional review boards generally accept that some inducement, in the form of an incentive, is permissible when risks to study participants are negligible and low likelihood of harm exists.)
For more vulnerable study participants, such as minor children or economically disadvantaged people, there are concerns that research incentives may lead to exploitation.
Some argue that research incentives can compromise the integrity of research studies in certain circumstances. For instance:
- Incentives may attract reward seekers.Some people earn a secondary — or even primary — income by regularly volunteering to participate in research studies. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
A problem may arise when those study participants aren’t truly representative of the group that researchers wish to sample. These people are only in it for the money and really have no engagement with or personal investment in a research topic. They likely won’t take the study seriously and give meaningful responses. In extreme cases, such as when cash (or cash equivalent) incentives are excessive, people can become so motivated to get money that they may lie about their eligibility for the study in orderto participate, skewing the results. Researchers need to be cognizant of this influence and take steps to ensure that participants are optimal subjects.
- Incentives can introduce the potential for bias into a study. It’s possible that studies can oversample economically disadvantaged people who may have a greater interest in financial incentives. Gather certain demographic information on prospective study participants, including income, profession and other socioeconomic data, to capture a representative sampling of the population you’re targeting.
Furthermore, if an incentive doesn’t broadly appeal to the majority of study participants equally, a study may only attract those for whom the incentive holds strong appeal. In this instance, researchers could miss the contributions of the other potential participants who opted not to engage because they didn’t see any value in the incentive for them. To avoid this bias, it may be helpful to work with an incentive provider that offers a broad range of incentives. These providers allow researchers to set a maximum dollar amount, and then study participants can select the reward that most strongly appeals to them.
How to create and structure a research incentives program
If you’re thinking about incentives, you’ve probably already done the following:
- Set your budget
- Established research objectives
- Targeted the types of participants you’ll recruit
The next step is to decide which type of incentives may be most effective in increasing enrollment.
1. Select the incentive for research participants.
Consider what’s standard in your area of research along with the expectations of your prospective recruits. Weigh the pros and cons of your favored incentive.
2. Choose a dollar (or value) amount.
How much will you spend on incentivizing each study participant? You’ll need to balance fair compensation with avoiding the appearance of coercion.
That is, the amount you spend (or the extravagance of a gift or prize) shouldn’t be so excessive in proportion to the participant’s actual contributions that it looks like you’re trying to exercise undue influence over their actions. So, what constitutes an appropriate amount? It varies depending on:
- Socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of your pool of study participants, such as income and age
- Local social and cultural norms
- Expertise, specialty knowledge, professional status or other niche characteristics required of study participants
- Level of risk that study participants may assume
- Standards for your industry or area of research
- Your research methodology and the amount of time participants will need to dedicate to the study (for example, whether the study is in-person or remote, or one-part versus multi-part)
Here’s a comprehensive guide offering recommendations on optimal incentive amounts for user experience research. Typically, you’ll incentivize each study participant equally. Of course, some participants may devote more time and effort to the research study than others, and their incentive amount may increase.
3. Set the frequency of incentive distribution.
How many times will you incentivize study participants?
If your study is fairly short in duration, such as an online survey, it may make most sense to offer a one-time incentive, either upfront or upon completion of the study. However, if the study is more extensive, taking place in multiple phases over a longer period of time, incentives could be spaced out in intervals to keep study participants engaged and discourage them from exiting the study prematurely.
In other cases, such as focus groups, it may be appropriate to compensate study participants on an hourly basis.
4. Decide how you’ll distribute incentives.
You have a few options for distributing incentives:
- In person
- By snail mail
It’s common to see small research studies manually handle incentive disbursements:
- Print and mail checks
- Hand out envelopes of cash
- Buy physical or digital gift cards
But this process has unnecessary costs, risks and manual labor:
- Time and monetary cost of printing, storing and mailing checks or gift cards
- Delivery time can take days or weeks
- Risk of fraud or delivery failure
- Checks contain sensitive information
- Cash is liable to theft
- Difficulty to tracking uncashed checks
5. Obtain informed consent.
Researchers should explain to study participants the nature of the study and their obligations, and get their voluntary agreement to participate based on these parameters. As part of this exercise, be clear and inform study participants upfront about:
- The incentive they’ll receive
- The dollar amount or equivalent value
- When (or how often) they can expect to receive it
- Any other rules or policies relating to incentives and how they’re selected and distributed
Keeping study participants informed can help to stave off ethical concerns.
Are research incentives taxable income?
Research incentives are taxable income. Recipients are required to report income when they receive $600 or more from an entity (a business, research institution, etc.). That business is required to send the recipient a Form 1099-MISC, according to the Internal Revenue Service.
With a long history spanning about 200 years, research incentives are proven effective in convincing people to participate in research studies and, therefore, help to contribute toward high-quality, accurate, robust research outcomes.
There are many types of research incentives that researchers can leverage, any of which can be effective on a study-by-study basis. Cash and cash equivalent incentives — especially those delivered instantly — tend to be the most powerful motivators.
Though research incentives offer many benefits to both researchers and study participants, watch out for ethical issues (coercion and exploitation) and take measures to reduce the risk of bias and skewed results in a research study.