Is the market research incentive model flawed?

High quality feedback requires more than just rewarding respondents with extra cash. So how do marketers bridge the ‘say-do’ gap of surveys to ensure better data quality and compliance?

In performance marketing, market research can make people feel like guinea pigs tested over and over again. The easy fix is offering something to motivate them, like a reward.  

But offering higher incentives in market research doesn't necessarily equate to better data quality. This is a huge design flaw in how market research operates.

Andrea Villani, Managing Director at Appinio, addresses the challenge of the ‘say-do’ gap and how research incentives need to be deployed to ensure better data quality and compliance.

For marketers, uncovering people’s opinions, attitudes and sentiments towards a particular trend, product or brand can back up the direction of travel for a campaign and give confidence in their decision making. However, providing a lens into a target audience is all guesswork without high-quality insights. 

One way to gather consumer insights is to conduct market research with a specific target group. Today, market research has never been quicker, more accessible, and scalable. But quality continues to be problematic, despite how far traditional market research tools and processes have come. While many market research players have developed a sophisticated net to catch bad quality responses, more needs to be done to recruit and maintain a healthy and motivated pool of panelists. 

“Garbage in, garbage out”

There are many roadblocks that jeopardise panelist quality, with slow and antiquated methodologies being a main one. Couple this with the market research gatekeepers who continue to dictate ‘best practices’ - despite many being outdated - and marketers often find their hands tied. If they don’t track down the few players who are moving away from the old ways of thinking and doing, they risk not making good decisions for the business. As the saying goes in computer science, “garbage in, garbage out.” 

Another barrier to quality is when market research companies rely heavily on third-party providers to supply panelists. This hinders their ability to achieve the best possible quality, both in terms of insights and panelists. In this scenario, quality is measured by the panel providers and not by those conducting the research, which often results in conflicting expectations and inconsistencies around what’s deemed ‘high quality’. 

Finding contemporary and cost-effective ways of interacting with research participants at scale isn’t easy. But ultimately, this interaction is essential for ensuring quality of participant and response, as quality arises when panelists feel motivated and engaged. 

Whether it’s a third-party provider or a market research company themselves providing the panel, incentives have been introduced to help improve quality. But does offering higher incentives equate to better quality?

“The say-do gap”

As the word suggests, incentives are there to encourage participants to take part in a piece of research, as these marketing exercises can make people feel like guinea pigs tested over and over again. But incentivising market research can make people feel like they’re getting rewarded for their time and effort, whether that’s a monetary incentive or ‘points’ if the research platform is gamified. 

The key issue with the design of current research incentive models is that they can make participants biased. This is a huge flaw in how market research operates. It attracts people that are just looking for easy rewards, without having any genuine interest in contributing to the development process. 

Some participants may see a high incentive and try to please the researchers by answering what they think the researcher wants to hear from them. This is when social desirability bias comes into play, as respondents change their choices to ones deemed more socially acceptable to appear more ‘desirable’ themselves. Along a similar vein, it encourages the ‘say-do gap’ where there are discrepancies in what participants say during the research process and what they actually do. As David Ogilvy said in 1963: “People don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.” 

On the other hand, participants will make a choice based on the first thing that comes into their minds, as they know that they’ll receive a reward anyway. 

While there’s merit in handing out higher incentives at the right times, there’s a tipping point where incentives counteract intent, impacting the accuracy and credibility of the research. What’s needed is for both marketers and market research companies to distinguish the difference between a monetary incentive and other forms of rewards that are perceived as an incentive by the participant. 

An incentive model that works

Monetary incentives - whether that’s cash to spend however the participant likes, vouchers to redeem at a particular store, or virtual points to convert into vouchers - have become a point of diminishing returns. To avoid a strong bias, they work best when coupled with high intrinsic motivation, which can come from fostering a sense of ongoing community and collaboration during the research process. Thinking about monetary incentives as a way to guide behaviour, rather than create the initial trigger for interaction, is another way to frame this. 

Making people feel part of something greater - like shaping the brand’s future products or dictating the course of a new venture - gives participants a sense of purpose. Many brands have tapped into this notion of ‘purpose’ when designing research incentives models, offering charitable donations as an incentive. Not only does exchanging time spent for a good cause create a positive personal reward for the participant, but it can also be an added bonus for the brand’s CSR. 

Incentives aside, getting buy-in from the right (genuinely interested) participants can also come from simply improving the UX and UI of the information gathering process. Engagement must be extremely fluent without interruptions from technical issues. And it must be in the participant’s control, allowing them to dictate how long they spend engaging with the research and on which device they do it.

Therefore, to ensure quality, it’s important to centre solutions around the panelists themselves - from their engagement preferences to their behaviour around certain incentives. Doing so will enable market research to escape the flaws brought on by antiquated processes and methodologies, attract the right participants, and allow marketers to deliver better quality insights that improve campaign and business performance.  

By Andrea Villani

Managing Director