Why do we pay cash incentives to participants in qualitative market research and user testing?

“I don’t want you to recruit me people who are just in it for the money!” — there’s a refrain we’ve heard from plenty of researchers we work for at Saros Research. And we would agree wholeheartedly — provided that little word ‘just’ is given due consideration.

If you are a qualitative researcher or user tester who cares about the work you do, we understand why you love it — exploring human behaviour and motivations is incredibly interesting and fulfilling. You take pride in doing it to high professional standards, you care about the people who take part in it (or you would not be reading this), and it brings complex personal and professional rewards of many kinds.

However, we certainly hope you get paid for it as well. Your time and your experience are worth money, the insights you bring add great value to your clients commercial enterprises and decision-making, and it is only fair that you should be suitably rewarded for that input. You wouldn’t dream of describing yourself as “just being in it for the money”, but you live in a society where people get paid for adding value to other things. So your salary is your just reward.

We believe the same goes for participants as well.

Rewarding somebody for their time and money does not mean that they are any less committed to the participation, indeed recognising it as of monetary value hopefully means that they commit more and make greater efforts. Very often in consumer research, the cash incentive on offer compares favourably to the hourly rate they might earn anyway, and it is not wrong for that participation to be transactional in nature. You want them to bring thinking and effort to the process, not to passively sit there but to engage with your ideas, get their brains to sweat, and give you some great verbatims. We believe that appropriate reward for this, in cash terms, is a reasonable expectation.

There is a strangely British thing, that sometimes makes us squeamish talking or thinking about money. Especially cash notes in brown envelopes! However, we all need to earn the stuff and spend it, that’s how the world works, for most of us (we did once recruit a fascinating project with more-or-less “off the grid” lifestyle respondents… But I am pretty sure they got paid in cash too, and I am sure they appreciated it for all the stuff they could not grow organically but simply had to engage with the outside world to purchase).

Interestingly enough, one of the few positive aspects of the financial crisis seems to have been a slight “lightening up” and getting over this cultural hang-up, more willingness to talk about earning a few quid extra and recognising individual value as a consumer. This is good for us in recruitment of course, and we hope that it is good for research overall — a greater recognition of the value of unique perspective every consumer holds. Whether it is people earning reward points for their supermarket shopping or sharing their email address in exchange for discount vouchers, people are engaging more with the idea that their attention has a price. Even the way we use social media requires an acceptance and understanding of the fact that if we are not paying client then we are the product — somebody is paying for our page views. So, it seems reasonable to talk about earning some cash for sharing our opinions in research as well.

Paying incentives also recognises that people may have direct costs related to their attendance, particularly at a face-to-face event. They may have travel costs, they may be paying child carers…. They may simply have the opportunity cost of giving up their time — but that’s time which could be spent either earning a living, or doing something of their choosing — instead they’re spending it with you and your stimulus material.

So, the incentive on offer goes some way, we hope, to compensating and acknowledging that. Of course it should not be the only reason that people participate, and we are very careful in recruitment to stress all that they will gain from participation above and beyond the cash they take home. We make it clear that they are being recruited to take part in an active process, not just to show up and sign in. Of course, getting contributions from every member in a group is part of your moderator skill-set on the night, and some people will always be more lively and forthcoming than others. But everybody who we have interviewed will understand that the research is about their ideas, not about their presence.

With certain projects and certain kinds of participants, of course, the need to earn cash isn’t so much of a draw– in terms of what the payment means to them. Recruiting high net worth participants, we may be offering them less than their professional charge out rate, or pocket change to a well-heeled investor. However we do have to offer the cash — even if we alternatively offer to make a charitable donation instead on their behalf, (and experience tells us that there will be very little uptake of this). Offering a fair incentive reflecting something meaningful to them, tells people that we appreciate what they are worth — not that we think they need the money.

A final point to bear in mind, is that whilst people gain greatly from taking part in research, they don’t know what to expect beforehand. Nearly everybody we recruit has never taken part in anything like this before, and they’re approaching it with a mixture of skepticism, curiosity, anticipation and possibly even slight nerves. The feedback we receive daily from grateful participants suggests that they have an excellent and interesting time in every well-run research event we recruit for. They enjoy the social aspects of the research, they enjoy being listened to and having their opinions valued, they may also perceive great reward in their potential influence on a product they love (or hate). We have even had people specifically tell us they enjoyed it so much, they would gladly have done it without the payment!

However, those factors are intangible and personal, And most importantly they are reflections AFTER the event. We cannot persuade anybody to come along on that basis — what they each get out of it will be unique and individual, depending on many different factors. We cannot motivate people to take part based on what intangible personal things they might gain. The cash therefore has a very important role in terms of motivating attendance in the first place, even if it is not the most significant factor finally in what they take away from it afterwards.

Excerpt from The Participant Principle, publishing March 2016 http://theparticipantprinciple.com