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Do Financial Incentives Increase SMS Survey Response Rates?

By Guest Writer on November 14, 2018

mobile data collection payments

When organizations set out to use our platform for mobile data collection via SMS or IVR, implementers often ask, “what response rate will I get from my survey?”, or “how can I increase my response rate?”

The truth is … it depends!

Response rates depend on your organization, your respondents, and their motivation or incentives for responding. Most practitioners assume that financial incentives are the most effective for stimulating engagement, and indeed research shows they can enhance response rates.

But they are not always necessary and rarely sufficient. The design of your survey— its structure, tone and content— is equally important, even when conducting an extremely lean 3-question SMS survey.  Finding the right design requires a commitment to experimentation and iteration.

Financial Incentive SMS Survey Case Study

Early this year in Kenya, a UN agency in partnership with a government ministry found that minor adjustments to an SMS survey drastically increased response rates, regardless of financial incentives.

  • In May 2017, the agency used the Echo Mobile platform to send an SMS survey with a KES 35 ($0.35) airtime incentive to 25,000 Kenyan government employees, 21% of whom completed the survey via SMS, answering anywhere from  four to nine questions.
  • In October 2017, they sent the same survey to the same group with the same airtime incentive, but only 16% completed the survey.
  • Finally, in February 2018, the same survey was sent again, with minor design tweaks and no financial incentives. The completion rate nearly doubled to 29%.

Win-win! The implementers saved money by dropping the airtime transfers and got better feedback, demonstrating how minor survey design tweaks can lead to major improvements.

4 Recommendations for SMS Survey Success

Here are some recommendations for M&E practitioners who are looking to maximize SMS survey response rates while minimizing costs or avoiding financial incentives.

Skip the “opt-in”

An Invitation SMS can be  important when you need to  provide introductory, contextual, or instructional content at the beginning of a survey. They are a polite way to introduce your organization if the recipient doesn’t know you and then clarify what your survey is about and why and how they can proceed (more below on instructions!).

They provide an opportunity to ensure consent (eg. “respond ‘ok’ to begin”). But invitation messages  can also create a barrier to completion.

In the Kenya case, many respondents did not opt in to the 2017 survey, so for the 2018 version of the survey, the invitation message was dropped in favor of an informational SMS that progressed automatically to the first question.

Removing the opt-in invitation message won’t always help improve response rates, but for organizations that have already conducted SMS engagement and created a rapport with their respondents, the intro message may only add an extra unnecessarily formal step.

In cases where respondents are less familiar with your organization, they might be suspicious of the opt-in request. In Kenya, there are premium SMS services that often push messages to unknowing respondents and deduct airtime from them once they opt in. Even if using a toll-free or reverse billed shortcode, consider how they might react to an opt-in intro message and design your survey accordingly!

Personalize the content

Unlike in 2017, the 2018 version of the UN Kenya survey also included each respondent’s name in the first SMS. Recipients immediately saw their name before automatically progressing to the first question. This personalization builds a sense of trust, captures recipients’ attention, and is less likely to be mistaken for spam.

And you don’t need to stick only to basic information like name. Capture key data fields to make your SMS surveys increasingly personalized and intelligent over time. If you ask recipients their favorite football team, store the response so that next time you send them SMS you can personalize your content further and sustain engagement: “Hi [NAME]. How did [FOOTBALL_TEAM] perform this weekend?….”

Give clear Instructions

With careful attention to the 160-character limit on SMS, the 2018 version of the UN survey also added quick instructions at the end of each question. In the prior 2017 versions, each SMS only contained the question, without instructions on how to answer. These can go a long way to guide the respondents on how to answer specific question types.

Send SMS reminders

While the 2017 survey did include an automated SMS reminder sent to any respondents who had not started or completed the survey after 24 hours, the 2018 version added a second reminder, sent 12 hours later

Reminder SMS are meant to nudge contacts who are willing to respond to a survey, but who may have become distracted before completing it. This is especially common with long surveys, which risk respondent fatigue. Reminders are a subtle way of nudging them to finish the survey, though an even better (and cheaper) option is to keep it lean! Too many reminders  may lead to recipients opting out of future SMS communications.


While research on the potential impact of financial incentives is clear, no amount of money or airtime can make up for suboptimal survey design!

Monetary rewards can move the response rate in the margins, but not always, and only if you get the design right first. Financial incentives are complementary to a well designed survey that has useful and clear content, an efficient structure, and a personal tone. Moreover, it’s often non-financial incentives—the broader reasons why your contacts might want to engage with you at all—that are the most significant determinant of responsiveness.

Not everyone’s time and information can be bought, so for your next SMS survey, consider first what informational, relational, or emotional incentives you might be offering (whether explicitly or implicitly). As with any relationship, both sides ultimately need to feel like there is a benefit to the requested communication and commitment.

James Mwangi is the Deployment Lead at Echo Mobile, and this post was originally published on the Echo Mobile blog.

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