Rethinking Incentives: Finding and Engaging Participants without Paying Incentives

By Ilka Kuhagen and Nina Stolle, IKM GmbH, Munich, Germany, ilka.kuhagen@ikmarketing.de

A German start-up assigned our company, IKM, with a user analysis of their potential target group. The topic was how caretakers of elderly people deal with their everyday challenges. The difficulty: as a start-up, the client’s budget was tight, and they could not afford to pay any incentive to the participants. Therefore, we could not use traditional incentive-based recruiting but had to find respondents willing to participate for free.

The questions set out at the beginning of the study were:

  • How and where to find potential participants willing to share their experience and give us insights without being paid an incentive?
  • How will the conduct and answers of those participating for free differ from paid participants?

Social media channels such as Facebook were used to recruit potential participants. Social media groups often center on common interests, so our research team joined social groups that potentially could be relevant to the study. Targets for recruitment were relatives taking care of elderly people as well as professional caretakers for elderly people.

The study was conducted using a German-language online community platform allowing participants full anonymity. Participants could enroll themselves using links shared on social media.

The recruiting of non-paid participants turned out to take longer and to be more challenging compared to getting incentive-based participants. However, the richness of data from those non-paid participants, without our even probing them, was beyond our expectations. The ease of use of the platform as well as full transparency for the participants proved key in establishing a relationship of trust.

1. Create Trust

Communities such as Facebook and its many subgroups are based on acceptance. After joining the groups, the moderator published the link to the study using her own name, including a brief summary of the purpose of the study and the company conducting it. The communication on social media started the moment the link was posted online. Within the first minutes, people in the Facebook group were questioning the research intentions and discussing their bad experiences with research. Initially, some active forum users were rather aggressively rejecting any market research and “so-called studies.” They had participated often in surveys, did not really understand what it all was for, and felt past time and efforts had been unappreciated. The tone was one of frustration: “Another study, I cannot hear it anymore!”

Expectations and frustrations had to be managed immediately to avoid a negative wave. A member of the research team logged in, as herself, and gained the trust of those on this forum. In the end, community members considered us favourably and eventually started supporting and defending our cause. After initial rejections, some community moderators even supported our cause, asking participants to join and participate in the study. “Dear members, (moderator’s name) published her study with a link and asked us kindly for help. With all my understanding regarding the frustration of past studies, I still ask you to either participate, stay neutral, or skip this post.” Some of the active members, and even community moderators, participated in our study and provided positive feedback and comments to their community. This helped to increase the number of participants.

Our own Facebook page also noticed a sudden increase in attention with readers researching who we were. Obviously, participants wanted to find out more about the researchers behind the study.

After overcoming those initial hurdles, we managed to get great participants for our research. Two participants also shared their experience of participating in our study on social media to motivate peer members to join the study:

“Participated. Short summary: Different from many studies before, less statistics, more free formulations, open questions, dialogue with other participants—well anonymized for the others.”

2. Engaged Participants

The huge difference: these participants did not participate for an incentive but rather to see a change. They made our cause their cause. Compared to incentive-based studies, the answers of these participants were often more detailed, providing comprehensive pictures of specific situations. With an established trust relationship, and without a financial motive, the recruited participants were willing to share more honest opinions and deeper insights into their feelings. They allowed us to enter their day-to-day lives, take part in their daily challenges and frustrations without hiding or whitewashing the truth.

As always, participants could leave the study at any time. There was no monetary carrot to motivate full participation. Nonetheless, every participant but one who started the study answered all the questions through the very end. Many participants also came back multiple times to answer follow-up questions and to engage in discussions with their peers. With incentive-motivated respondents, this is not always easy to achieve. As moderators, we often have to be very involved and use follow-up emails with incentive-based participants to promote high engagement.

These participants made positive remarks about the study focusing predominantly on the dialogue, personal feelings, and worries, rather than on statistics. They appreciated the wide-open ears of the moderator listening to their answers, and they willingly gave even more details:

“The questions are good, mainly because they also refer to us and our feelings and worries and give us space for it. Thank you.”

But their engagement went beyond answering the questions in the study. Many participants wished to receive a summary of the outcome:

“It would be nice to hear the result from the study. Thank you.”

“Looking forward to an evaluation.”

After the study was completed and the client had reviewed the results, a summary of the highlights was in fact shared with all participants.

3. Keep it Simple

Participants were asked initially to sign up for the study by email to subsequently receive more information and get invited to the research community. This approach did not prove to be successful; only three participants were recruited this way during the first week.

So, the approach was changed and the link to the study was published directly in a post on social media. Also, we ensured the setting was strictly anonymous to guarantee anonymity for all participants. None of the client’s information was included on the platform, so we could risk making the link public. Within three days 13 more participants enrolled online.

Normally, research is set up in smaller bites for respondents to focus on each day. This time around, though, all the questions could be seen at once by the participants to avoid frustration and to give them a feeling for the length and type of questions of the study. Most joined the discussion immediately, coming back multiple times.

Researchers love to see videos and images of real lives. Professionally recruited participants are told upfront and will get paid for the extra effort it takes them. This turned out to be more difficult with participants who have been recruited through social media. They all had the option to post videos or photos online using a private mode; however, no one used this function; they considered it too complicated or time consuming. Overall, participants were motivated to participate, but it had to be made as easy and as technically simple as possible for them.


Recruiting participants without paying incentives requires more time and involvement from the researcher. It is faster to pay a recruiter than to immerse the project team into social media. Using this approach also presented a steep learning curve for the researchers, but in the end we mined valuable nuggets via social media and gained insights that we later used as a basis for discussion. So, while there is more effort required, there is also substantial gain for the research.

Establishing relationships based on transparency and trust is key. Moreover, participants had to understand the reason for the research and what was expected of them so that they could identify with the cause of the study. And, most importantly, the participation process (e.g. clicking directly on the link to the study) had to be made easy.

In the end, the high engagement translated into a great richness of data. Overall, the answers were extremely detailed. Contrary to what researchers would see with paid respondents, a lot more details and insights were given without the necessity of additional probing. Respondents did not participate for a financial benefit but instead to support a cause. As such, they were willing to put in more effort than paid participants. They took the questions to heart and answered them as honestly and in as much detail as they could.

While the initial recruiting phase of non-paid participants might be more challenging, it paid off through the richness of data gathered during this study.

A basic requirement to success with “no incentives” is having a topic that speaks to the heart of the participants, that offers an opportunity to share and thus improves a service and/or product that is of high interest to them. If we need to test a logo or a visual, there will be less response for that than for a product or service that is dear to their hearts. When the topic is important, it motivates people to participate and to share in ways no amount of Euros can achieve.

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