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Want People to Answer Your Mobile Survey? Pay Them!

By Jacob Korenblum on November 21, 2014

So, you’re an M&E Tech expert and you’re gearing up to deliver the Survey Instrument of the Century—the one that’ll gather data on every indicator you need, at the same time, at massive scale, and with zero error. How do you get the job done?

Increasingly, the answer is a single word: Incentives.

In a nutshell, to motivate busy communities to take part in your poll, you opt to compensate them with mobile airtime credit, access to training, or best of all, capacity building! The incentive is a way of acknowledging that people have many competing priorities—and so, if they take time to do your poll, it’s only fair that they get some sort of immediate benefit.

The Case for Incentives

But don’t incentives lead to a bunch of false positives—people who say “yes, I loved your capacity-building training on how to build capacity” just to get some free mobile credit? Not really, say several studies on the topic:

  • Shettle and Mooney, in a wide-ranging survey of M&E incentive campaigns, noted no statistically significant differences in response content from poll participants who received incentives, relative to those who didn’t.
  • In a separate study, Singer, Groves and Corning found that incentive recipients were no more likely to answer “don’t know” to a series of 18 questions than non-recipients.
  • Cobanoglu and Cobanoglu found similar outcomes in their own review of incentive-based evaluation initiatives.

More importantly, all three studies agreed on a key point: Across the board, offering incentives drives up response rates. More people will jump up and answer surveys if they’re compensated to do so.

For the Right Reasons

So it’s an open-shut case? Incentivize away? Perhaps. But before doing so, it may be useful to take a step back and ask ourselves: Why are we doing this in the first place? Too often, the M&E sector gets labelled with a term that’s usually reserved for oil drilling and coal mining: Extraction.

When we go into a community and gather data, we’re often perceived as taking knowledge and information out, without adding value back. And no incentive – whatever its value – can counter that growing perception.

My Advice

Before even considering the incentive debate, think carefully about the overall M&E process you’re launching. Ask yourself: Are we delivering results back to the community? Are our beautiful Big Data visualizations helping address community needs? And if people aren’t racing to take part in our surveys, should we still deliver them as is, or should we regroup and re-think the process? If, after careful reflection, incentives still seem like the best way to go, here are some key considerations to bear in mind:

  • Find the right value threshold. The delicate question of “how much should I offer” always has a different answer. In some settings, pegging airtime incentives to the average cost of a pre-paid recharge is a good fit. In other cases, you may need to offer credit amounts that are much higher than the going rate for text, audio, or data. And for non-financial incentives, the value proposition can be entirely different. Overall, the best ‘rule of thumb’ from our experience is to A/B test different incentive thresholds and see where the response rates are best (controlling for as many other variables as you can, of course).
  • Some people just don’t care; that’s both good & bad. In some settings, mobile users simply aren’t interested in incentives–regardless of whether it’s airtime credit or other compensation that’s on offer. In certain cases, this means that you’re free to carry out your mobile survey without an incentive structure; great news. In other cases, it means that no amount of motivation will spur communities to take part in your poll. When that happens, it may be time to revisit the poll itself, or the wider M&E process, to assess whether the overall fit is right: There may be other reasons why your survey isn’t prompting people to leap out of their seats and grab the nearest phone.
  • Everyone gets tired at some point: keep it simple. Few people want to answer a 100-question survey on their mobile device. Stick to the questions that matter most, and make sure the wording of these questions is clear and easy to understand.
  • Demonstrate mutual benefit, and act on it. Most importantly, articulate clearly to community members why data is being collected, how this data is going to be used, what the tangible benefits of the process will be, and when communities can expect to see these results. The best M&E processes convey all these points clearly – and that, in itself, becomes the incentive for communities to take part.

Jacob Korenblum is the CEO of Souktel, and a recovering M&E tech expert.

Filed Under: Finance, Thought Leadership
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Jacob Korenblum is CEO of Souktel Digital Solutions, a developer of custom mobile data solutions for the aid and development sectors.
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