Tragedy of the Commons: Michael Collins on the Participant Experience in Market Research

Without participants there would be no research--so how do we keep participants engaged, protected, and feeling valued for helping us? Zintro CRO Michael Collins offers suggestions and shares best practices to ensure a strong participant experience.

Sebastian Murdoch-GibsonBy Sebastian Murdoch-Gibson, Founder and CEO, QualRecruit, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, sebastian@qualrecruit.com

Michael Collins, Chief Revenue Officer, Zintro, Newport, Rhode Island, mcollins@zintro.com

Without participants, necessarily, there is no research. As market researchers, we rely on the common assets of public recognition, goodwill, and trust in our processes. Think about it: Most of the time, qualitative research means strangers from the internet calling and offering money—everything we’ve been taught about scams militates against trusting the process. Thankfully, market research has a good name.

Even if they’ve never sat in focus groups themselves, most people have a friend, a relative, or a coworker who has spoken positively about the experience of getting paid to be fed and listened to. Against the din of project demands and rapid timelines, it can be easy to lose sight of the duty of care we all share toward this common resource. But what happens if it goes away? What happens if the story of a participant changes from sandwiches and checks to invasive questions and last-minute cancellations? What happens to our clients if the participants start tuning us out?

For Zintro CRO Michael Collins, that’s a worrying outcome, and one researchers share a responsibility for avoiding. The participant experience is a subject he’s recently presented on in various industry fora, and he’s been kind enough to share
his thoughts with VIEWS.

Sebastian: First off, what is the participant experience, and why does it matter in market research?

Michael: Participants are essential to market research. People invited to participate in market research don’t exactly need researchers, but researchers need participants. Participants value an experience that combines being respectful, convenient, relevant, rewarding, and interesting. If participants don’t have a positive experience, then they might not participate in future research requests. With fewer people responding to research invitations, it could take more time and resources to reach the full number of participants needed to complete a study. If fewer people are open to participating, it might lead to lower-quality participation or less relevant perspectives overall.

Sebastian: What are the risks of failing to manage the participant experience properly?

Michael: If the experience is not great, then participants may not contribute fully to the research. Participants may unknowingly delay responses, reschedule or not attend, insist on a higher incentive or lower level of involvement, focus less on the discussion, withhold relevant and helpful feedback, etc.

Researchers try to maintain a positive experience for participants—but factors such as budget limitations, increased competitive pressures, understaffing, tight timelines, confusion around client expectations, scope creep, and unrealistic criteria contribute to the process.

Participant experience is an example of “the tragedy of the commons” concept. A situation where individuals (researchers) act in their own interest and, in doing so, deplete a public/shared resource (participants). It is difficult for researchers to balance their constraints with the common good of participants and other researchers, especially if they are competitors.

Sebastian: How would you describe COVID’s impact on the participant experience in market research?

Michael: The lasting changes caused by the pandemic are primarily remote methodologies and outsourcing. The amount of in-person research has dropped significantly as tools like Zoom are much more convenient, efficient, and affordable. Traditional facilities, call centers, and local recruiters faced more challenges transitioning to remote work than digital-native competitors. Since they’re now accustomed to remote work, more companies are experimenting with outsourcing or hiring globally to reduce costs and/or source-specific talent.

Sebastian: How can recruitment companies support a strong participant experience?

Michael: Similar to a traditional HR recruiter/job candidate scenario, participants want recruiters to provide updates and, ultimately, closure on the status of their potential participation. If recruiters leave participants waiting or feeling ignored, then they’re less likely to cooperate with future invitations. Clear context and personalization are also important for recruiters to provide for participants. We live in a noisy world, especially online. If invitations are nonspecific and nonpersonalized, the participant is less likely to notice and respond. Participants often feel their time and attention are not respected if they are invited to irrelevant topics or if they fail too many screening questions.

Sebastian: How do you think financial incentives (or the lack thereof) can contribute to the participant experience?

Michael: Some people are willing to participate in market research without compensation for their time. This is more likely possible if they’re personally interested in the specific topic. It is important to note, however, that people are busy, the total level of involvement is often understated, and many people expect their time to be respected in the form of an incentive. Researchers must continually put themselves in participants’ shoes and realize they, too, would have certain standards for how they expect to be treated and rewarded for their investment of time. Studies that do not provide a monetary incentive for participants can generally expect to have less interest from participants and lower-quality participation (slow replies, unresponsiveness, requests to reschedule, no-shows, lack of enthusiasm, etc.) as a result.

Sebastian: What best practices can you share about preserving the participant experience?

Michael: Although there is a balance of researchers seeking to avoid bias by limiting context, participants are not to be misled. We help reach this balance by ensuring clients understand limitations and participants understand the essential research goals, processes, and their involvement.

Here are a variety of best practices that we have found to be important to preserve the participant experience:

  • Provide human communication by phone and email (not just automated pathways) with participants.
  • Compensate participants quickly and make sure their expectations around payment timelines are appropriately managed from the beginning of the process.
  • Compensate them at or above market average for participation out of respect for their time.
  • Serve as an advocate for participants in study planning and communication with clients by helping ensure the process avoids unnecessary time investment on their part.
  • Avoid using the screening process to extract insights from participants. We help distinguish between screening questions for initially determining relevance and discussion questions for gaining insights.
  • Profiling our panel to avoid creating duplicate work for participants at the screening stage. If we better understand their perspective, then we can avoid wasting time with irrelevant invitations and screenings.

Sebastian: What concerns have you heard from participants about the retention and storage of their data?

Michael: Participants are likely more concerned with how their involvement will be used than by where their data are stored, but both are important considerations, especially for B2B. When professionals are asked about their work or industry, many will consider how participation impacts their privacy and reputation. Some participants will be concerned that their personal opinions will be seen as them speaking on behalf of their organization or industry. Others are concerned that their organization will not look favorably on them participating in research or, generally speaking, to outside parties. For general consumer research, participants might be concerned about how their involvement will be used if the study touches on sensitive topics like religion, politics, sex, drugs, or similar.

It is important and beneficial to both the researcher and the participant to communicate the context and intentions of the research clearly, along with the level of privacy and security the participant will have in participating. Access and use of the participant’s data must be limited to only what the participant has explicitly approved. The storage location must also comply with regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or similar, depending on location.


The participant experience lies at the heart of successful research. Without the invaluable contributions of participants, our endeavors would be futile. As researchers, we bear a collective respon­sibility to uphold the trust, respect, and goodwill that participants place in our processes. By nurturing a positive and respectful participant experience, supp­orted by the practices above, we can secure the continuity and relevance of qualitative research.

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