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.


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.