How Much Should You Pay Survey Participants?

Margaret Becker

Paying survey participants can be an effective incentive for encouraging active engagement and consistent responses during a research study, particularly when using the experience sampling method (ESM). With ESM, participants are asked to provide repeated feedback and responses; when there’s a reward at stake, participants are likely to take their responsibility more seriously.


However, payment for participation is common and beneficial for any type of study, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Different compensation approaches, modes, and amounts will make more sense depending on your survey type. Read on to explore your options for paying research survey participants.

What are compensation approaches?

Surveys that provide compensation tend to involve multiple interactions from a participant, as previously mentioned with the ESM example. This creates a few different ways to frame payments.


All-or-nothing

In an all-or-nothing approach, participants either receive the full payment or nothing at all. Researchers can choose to trigger payout at a minimum percentage of completion. For example, if the participant completes at least 80% of responses they will receive $40; or, they must complete 100% of the prompts to receive their $40. If the participant doesn’t meet the minimum completion required, they receive nothing. 


Incentive thresholds

Researchers can also create incentive thresholds for participants to qualify for payment. For example, the participant may receive $25 for completing 80% of the survey, or $40 for 100% completion. 


Loss-aversion framing

Similar to incentive thresholds, loss-aversion framing compensates for partial completion. However, instead of gaining money with every response, participants start with a max payout and lose money every time they don’t complete a survey. For example, the participant loses a dollar from their $30 maximum payout every time they do not complete a survey.

What are the different modes of compensation?

Two common ways for researchers to pay participants are cash and e-gift cards. Each comes with a unique set of pros and cons. Which option you decide to go with should depend on what’s easiest and most cost-effective to execute.


Cash

Cash is a great option because it gives participants the most flexibility in how they use it. However, paying by cash typically must be done in person. In-person cash payments take time to coordinate; add to that the additional risk amid COVID-19 restrictions and it can be difficult for researchers to distribute incentives.


E-gift cards

E-gift cards allow researchers to avoid potential health risks and streamline distribution with digital compensation delivery. E-gift cards are immediate and provide a quick turnaround for participants. Still, e-gift cards are limited to wherever the gift card is accepted. E-gift cards require administrative time as well: researchers must collect participant emails, process the gift cards, and coordinate with academic business offices to distribute. 

What else should researchers consider?

There are 3 elements of participation you should consider when determining how much money to pay participants for a survey.


First, think about who you’re targeting. Do participants need to have specific expertise, or is general knowledge fine? Consider paying more for niche areas of expertise or experience.


Additionally, consider what sort of activities participants will be responsible for completing. Do they have to perform an action or intervention (e.g., practice something new like daily mindfulness meditations)? Or do they simply have to answer questions? Will they answer multiple-choice questions, open-ended questions, or a combination of both? The more complicated the activities required, the more you should pay.


Finally, take into account the overall time commitment required. Consider how many responses are required each day, week, and beyond, as well as how long each response requires. A higher time commitment should come with increased compensation.

Start paying participants

Once you’ve taken the above factors into consideration, you should have a good grasp of how much to pay your survey participants. Remember that compensation isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. You should approach each project individually. If you don’t see the engagement you’d like from a survey, try experimenting with different compensation amounts and methods to attract your ideal participant.


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