Research & Opinion

What Do Survey Incentives Actually Incentivize?

Surveys suck—but they don’t have to. It’s time to forget survey incentives and focus on consumer value instead.

Sweetgreen, I have a confession to make. I lied to you.

See, when I got the option to fill out a survey in exchange for a $10 credit, I leapt at the chance. Your salads are tasty, you’re two blocks from my office, and let’s face it, my lunchtime takeout habit’s not cheap.

But then this survey…oy. Three minutes in and I was clicking random buttons just to get to the end. I couldn’t remember the exact date of my last visit, or if I made modifications to my salad, or if the cashier said thank you. You want to know what words I associate with your brand? Right now the one that’s coming to mind is “interminable.”

So I gave you bad information. I’m not proud of myself. I just wanted those ten bucks.

Survey Says…We’re Self-Interested and Short-Sighted

With my mea culpa out of the way, let’s focus the lens more broadly. In my own defense, I’m not a massively unethical person—I’m just unethical by design.

The prisoner’s dilemma illustrates how framing can incentivize people to act against their own interest.

If you ever took Intro to Psychology, you may remember the classic psychological paradox called the prisoner’s dilemma, which illustrates how certain situations incentivize decision-makers to make self-interested choices that harm the group as a whole. In the thought experiment, two criminals are arrested and have to decide whether to rat out the other one or to stay silent. It’s possible to frame the choice such that, even if the better collective outcome is for both to keep quiet and cooperate, they will make the individual calculation that it is better for them to flip on their partner.

This is a long way of saying that circumstances can incentivize people who would otherwise be inclined to cooperate to act selfishly. In fact, there’s ample psychological research that the introduction of a monetary incentive actually triggers people to act more selfishly! The working theory is that people look for situational clues to define appropriate behavior, and introducing a monetary incentive is a hint that it’s situationally appropriate to put yourself first.

Not only can the right circumstances incline us to act selfishly, but they can also incline us to act against our own self-interest. Because humans tend to respond to instant gratification, the farther away a reward is, the more likely we are to discount it, a phenomenon known as temporal discounting—or, more colloquially, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Though personality plays a role in how susceptible we are to temporal discounting, framing can dictate our likelihood of choosing a smaller reward sooner rather than a larger reward in the future.

Why Your Survey Design Works Against You

Maybe it’s a bit less dramatic than the prisoner’s dilemma, but the classic survey set-up creates plenty of opportunity for perverse incentives. We’d have a better collective outcome if we all answered truthfully so the brand in question could use those insights to deliver a better customer experience in the future, but there’s a lot standing in the way of that behavior:

  • No matter if the other survey takers are truthful or if they simply hurry through, I’m still better off hurrying through in order to unlock my coupon or offer.
  • Giving me a monetary incentive predisposes me to think about what’s in it for me, rather than to provide good data.
  • Because I experience the survey as an individual, I don’t receive the situational cues that would make me inclined to act as a cooperative member of a larger group.
  • I’m going to discount the benefits of cooperating (i.e. a better consumer experience) in favor of immediate gratification (i.e. spending as little time on this as possible) because the benefits of cooperating won’t materialize for a long time.

Basically, I’m not bad, I’m just incentivized that way! Sorry, Sweetgreen.

It follows that, if everyone else is a system-gaming monster like me, then companies are spending a lot of time and money designing surveys, pushing traffic to those surveys, offering incentives for taking those surveys, and analyzing the results of those surveys—and receiving feedback that is questionable at best. Even worse, they then make important business decisions off of dubious insights.

Still, simply doing away with incentivization leaves us with another problem, which is that surveys are awfully boring. Without a reason to complete the survey, there’s, well, no reason to complete the survey.

Forget Survey Incentives—Let’s Think About Value

But what if we reconceptualized survey incentives altogether? What would surveys look like if they provided value to the consumer in the moment, giving consumers a reason to provide truthful, accurate information?

It’s not an idle question. There are low-hanging fruit ways to improve the survey experience and reduce drop-off, like limiting the number of questions to prevent boredom and incorporating branded creative elements into the graphic design to make it visually appealing.

Beyond those simple measures, though, is an opportunity to redesign the concept of a survey altogether and make it something that provides value in its own right. In this scenario, the incentive isn’t (necessarily) money—it’s entertainment, or saved time, or useful information.

For example:

  • A look book featuring interactive polling (“Would you wear this trend?”) provides entertainment value to the consumer while acting as a scalable focus group for a brand.
  • A personality quiz (“What kind of snacker are you?”) gives consumers a reason to answer truthfully while declaring information about their preferences, habits, and motivations that, taken in aggregate, are meaningful audience insights.
  • A product match (“What should your next vacation be?”) saves consumers time and helps them discover the right product, while make audience segmentation a breeze.
  • Even the stalwart (and yawn-inducing) customer experience survey, wrapped up in a fun question-and-answer experience like trivia or voting, sustains consumer interest and inclines them towards cooperation.

It doesn’t take a psychology degree to know that surveys suck—but we default to them because they’re comparatively easy to design. With a little empathy and a little creativity, we can design experiences that capture consumer insights while actually providing value in the moment.

But for what it’s worth: Sweetgreen, I’m sorry.

Published September 18, 2019

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