Incentives in Market Research: How much is too much?

Incentives are a commonplace method for recruiting research participants and encouraging them to provide high-quality feedback. In qualitative research, incentive amounts vary widely depending on the time commitment, the value of a respondent’s time, the difficulty of the tasks, whether respondents must travel for on-site participation, etc.

However, some worry that incentives could have the opposite of the intended effect, decreasing the quality of research participation and damaging the validity of findings. One line of thought is that large financial incentives for participation may appear coercive. They may lead participants to:

  1. Believe that the research involves risk (i.e., “They would never pay me so much if there was no risk”) or;
  2. Believe they should offer opinions that are “demanded” by the researcher (i.e., “I’ll tell them what they want to hear”). 

On the first point, recent studies show, in the context of social science research, that larger incentives do not lead participants to accept greater personal risk than they otherwise would. In the context of biomedical research, however, larger incentives have been shown to increase perceptions of riskiness and the amount of time participants spend reading about the potential risks of the research. These findings highlight the importance of informed consent. When a participant engages in any activity that involves little to no risk to them personally (e.g., responding to a de-identified questionnaire online, providing feedback on a product), it may be important to highlight that the purpose of the research is simply to learn about people’s opinions so that any incentive is not perceived to imply excessive risk.

On the second point, social scientists often find that worrying over whether a participant will tell a researcher what they want to hear is overblown. Even when participants are explicitly told what the goal of a research agenda is, the differences in how participants behave are minimal. Yet this should not be interpreted to mean that financial incentives could never change the behaviors of those taking a survey or participating in a focus group. In certain situations where the respondents may suspect the purpose of the research, interact directly with the researchers, and feel an obligation due to financial incentives, there remains a concern about response quality. Again, this highlights the need for the informed consent process to reiterate the non-contingent nature of incentives to participate and encourage honest responses in a non-judgmental environment. It also suggests that, when possible, respondents should not be made aware of what the researcher would view as a “desired” response.

Overall, there is a large body of scholarly work showing that incentives can enhance the quality of both qualitative and quantitative research. The question of how much respondents should be compensated is largely dependent on the nature of the work respondents are being asked to complete and the budget of the researcher. Yet there is little risk in overpaying respondents. To the extent that excessive incentives create a risk to the validity of a research agenda, these risks can be largely mitigated through informed consent and research designs that minimize the potential for coercion and bias.

How to find qualitative research participants

Having the right people for your qualitative study is important. You don’t want to use information based on overly-eager fans that will skew your findings but you don’t want to get a group that is overtly negative, either. So what are some ways you can find the unicorn of focus groups? Luckily, unlike actual unicorns, these do exist.qualitative research recruitment

The moment you know you have a need to conduct focus groups you need to start recruitment. The early bird gets the worm and the proactive researcher gets the kinks worked out to define their study needs. What area of the project will you focus on? Who are the stakeholders?

You may need to conduct a few different groups, but how many should be in each group? Typically, five to eight people is enough to get your information and allow the participants to be able to give their complete thoughts without one person dominating the conversation. If you have multiple stakeholders, be sure to have at least one group for each stakeholder.

Even within groups that have common characteristics, you should narrow down certain traits that will help your study. For example, if you are interested in launching a new music streaming service, you may find it helpful to talk to people who have experience not only with multiple different kinds of music streams but who also still buy LPs or CDs to find out what they like about each.

When you have these ideas thought out it will be easier for a market research recruitment agency to narrow down your focus group participants and you won’t lose valuable time. Focus on your focus group requirements early to get the best participants.


Focus Group and Individual Interview Time Length

It is easier to deal with things when you know they have a definitive timeframe and an endpoint. Most people do not like walking into the DMV or a restaurant and seeing a huge line. You just want your license renewed and some nachos. When you participate in a focus group, there are general standards that are followed.

qualitative research recruitment agenciesFor the actual discussion portion of the focus group, expect to spend an hour to 90 minutes on the content. You and your eight or so new best friends will have enough time to give thorough answers. This won’t feel like an agonizing eternity though. Add about 15 minutes at the beginning for check in and another 15 at the end to wrap up. All in all, usually a maximum of two hours for your opinion. And you’re getting paid.

If you are chosen for an individual interview, you can anticipate to spend up to an hour. Individual interviews can be in person, over the phone, or video conference. This type of research study is more in-depth and the interviewer can adjust questions to each participant.

The small size of both types of focus groups allow the moderator to get enough information but keep your time limited. Getting paid for a quick chat? Sounds like a brief and solid investment for your opinion!

What to Expect When You’re Focus Grouping

Unlike a jury summons, being selected for a focus group can be fun and exciting. Not only are you getting paid for your time but you have the unique opportunity to provide direct feedback that can influence the future of a product or service that you might use. That’s pretty cool. But what happens when you are actually in the focus group? There are a few things that you can expect. 

what do you do in a focus group

Most focus groups have between five and eight people in them so you can expect to be with a small group of people. You were picked for a specific reason and will likely have a different opinion or experience than the others. It’s important for you to speak up! You can offer a viewpoint that represents a certain market segment that the company is interested in so give your honest opinions and thoughts to their questions. 

Your time commitment will usually be around one to two hours. This is so everyone can be heard and the moderator has a chance to go through all the topics and points but not so long that it is a burden on you.

The moderator is there to make sure the group stays on task and will guide the discussion. They may or may not be an employee of the company but they are a professional and have a unique skill to identify trends and items of importance without skewing the data. They will have a predetermined set of questions but will also follow other threads that may be beneficial to the company. 

The hard work of focus groups is in the planning so participants get to have the fun. So just show up, give your opinion, and maybe enjoy a snack! 

Get personal with IDIs and TDIs

Deciding how many focus groups you need for your project can be tricky. How in-depth are the needs of the project you are working on? Sometimes, it may be more effective to conduct more personal interviews known as individual depth interviews (IDIs). It may also be more cost-effective to do telephone interviews with respondents (TDIs).qualitative research recruitment agencies

If you are looking for more details and want to have more flexibility in your interview, you may decide to go with an IDI. When the product or service you are researching needs you to evaluate complex ideas or concepts, your respondent may need more concentration and focus that is not available in a larger group of people. It is also better to have one-on-one interaction with people if the topic tends to be highly emotional. You will want to be able to establish a relationship that allows you to dig deeper and understand the nuances and insights.

A TDI is also a great way to have access to interviews and respondents that you might not be able to get locally. Having a broader research pool is definitely the highlight of this method, as well as the cost savings of travel. This is also a good way to cover topics that people might be embarrassed to talk about in a group or in person. The downside is that the interviewer loses the ability to read non-verbal cues, which can provide critical feedback.

These interviews can last between 30 and 90 minutes and you will probably have to conduct anywhere from 12 to 60 sessions. This may seem daunting but if cost is a key concern, these types may be the best option to get your data.

Get Paid for Your Opinion – Focus Groups

It’s August, so that means it’s time to start thinking about Christmas and Chanukah and what your budget will be for gifts. (Just kidding, you’re already behind.) But maybe you do need some extra cash or want to put a little away in savings for a trip, your car needs new tires, or you want to try that avocado toast we’ve been accused of loving too much. Focus groups are paid and you can make more money than online surveys. 

what do you do in a focus group

Most focus groups are limited to 60 to 90 minutes total time but the pay is anywhere from $50 to $200 typically. You may be paid even more depending on the brand and what demographic they are trying to reach. If you fall into a unique category, you could make some serious money. You can receive payment in the form of cash, prepaid debit cards, or even gift cards so you are able to use it right away. Another bonus: they sometimes feed you too. The focus groups will include food just as incentive or you might be lucky enough to be at a product test. You get to influence the taste of something and get paid!

Getting selected is as easy as filling out a basic demographic survey and then a recruiter will call you when they have a fit. Be sure to be honest because they are interested in your unique perspective. 

If you want to have some extra guac at Chipotle or are saving for your education, consider focus groups to boost your income. 

Think outside the side hustle box – Be in a focus group

The side hustle game is real. I bet you have friends who drive for ride shares or bombard you with the newest skin care/leggings/jewelry that you GOTTA HAVE via Facebook, right? But have you ever considered participating in a focus group? You won’t get rich but you can give opinions on things you already love or hate and make enough money to subsidize your favorite cocktail coffee habit. participate in research studies for money

Most focus groups are about five to eight of your newest best friends. You will get to sit around a conference table and have a moderator lead you through specific questions to ask your opinion about either a certain product or service. This is way more satisfying than a Yelp review because you get paid AND you can actually make a difference in the final outcome. Marketers need real user feedback in order to put the best they have to offer out there and your opinion matters! 

Most companies will have you fill out a profile first in order to see which products and services you are a fit for. They don’t want to waste time on someone who is unfamiliar with them and cannot give enough feedback unless they are conducting an awareness focus group. 

Also, be sure to only deal with reputable companies (Hi) before you give out any personal information. You certainly can use certain online public boards to find a focus group but you will have to do extra due diligence to verify that they are legitimate.  

Next time you find yourself thinking “I could sure use a couple extra bucks this week” consider participating in a focus group. It’s an hour or two of talking in exchange for a week’s worth of lattes and that seems pretty nice. 

Finding unbiased focus group participants

Everyone wants honest feedback all the time. That is false – only marketers want that. (Do these pants make my butt look big? See?) So how do you recruit people for your focus groups who are going to give honest and constructive feedback but are also not the biggest fans/biggest enemy of your brand? Where is the unbiased middle ground?qualitative research recruitment agencies

First off, let’s clarify that no selection process is perfect. We are all human (for now) and people are going to sneak through the vetting and screening once in a while who have special or unique views. It’s ok. The best we can do is to vet the screening process as best we can before we start selection. 

Set the exact specifications of the participants that you want for your group. You want to be specific but also keep in mind that the more requirements you have, the harder it will be to find people. Once your focus group recruiter has a list of names through either previous clients, nominations, ads, or announcements, the way to seek unbiased participants is through randomization.

Randomization will help give you a cross-section of everyone who made it through the screenings and they have an equal chance of being selected. Your list will probably be larger than what you require so you will have more than enough people to choose from. If you have 100 people and only need five, then every 20th person is selected. Easy peasy. 

Remember that your participants are human but by doing the legwork ahead of time and giving your recruitment team good screening parameters, you will find unbiased people for your focus group. 

How many focus group participants do I need?

Trying to find participants for a focus group study can be a lot like putting together the invite list for a dinner party. Who should I invite? How will they mesh with each other? Who is going to sit next to the Cross-Fitting vegan? It can be exhausting but it’s one of the most critical pieces to recruiting a successful and informative focus group. focus group participant recruitment

The number of respondents to recruit should be around eight people or slightly less, ideally. When dealing with qualitative research, you will be capturing thoughts and ideas and sentiments. People can become very passionate about a topic and if you have too many people in your focus group, not everyone will be able to share their opinions. That is like leaving money on the table. 

Larger focus groups are ok when you are testing an idea or product that people do not know much about. People who are familiar with a program and use it frequently will have strong opinions about how it works more so than non-users so feel free to adjust the size of the group depending on your participants’ level of experience with your product. 

If your topic is very complex or invokes a lot of passion in people, like healthcare, you should also keep the focus groups smaller. You will get a lot of information out of passion.

How many questions do you want to cover? If you have a lot of questions, invite a smaller group as well. 

Keep your purpose of the study and the complexity in mind and it will guide the size of your focus group participant recruitment.