With the little exposure to field-work in my career so far, I have been driven by an urge to explore ways of motivating and engaging respondents to answer our surveys. I can still recall the turmoil I faced while conducting shopper intercept interviews during my summer internship last year. The first hurdle was to convince the respondent to start with the survey. “Why should I take part in a survey?” is a question every single potential respondent is confronted with, as this is the central motivation question. The answer to this question is decisive for the later results.

Many respondents feel “forced” to answer surveys and feel that they are doing a favour to the interviewer by giving her their time. Also, many respondents feel, “If I don’t do it, there are many others out there who would do it. Why don’t you ask the other person to answer your survey?” This phenomenon is called the “Bystander effect”.

With the B.E.” people are less likely to provide needed help when they are in groups than when they are alone. Reviews of studies on over 6,000 subjects in a variety of helping situations indicate that subjects who are alone help about 75% of the time, while subjects in the presence of others help about 53% of the time. The bystander effect is believed to occur because of diffusion of responsibility when the responsibility is divided among many, everyone thinks that someone else will help. Hence, it becomes problematic to convince respondents in a crowded shop! Also, some of them say, “Why don’t you ask the other people? My answers may not be good enough for you!”

Even after the first hurdle is crossed, the second hurdle lurks in the corner. The respondents start off the survey well and answer the initial questions with interest. As the survey progresses, they start getting impatient/ bored and ask, “Still how many questions are left? Can we leave now?” Some of them just walk away or dismiss the interview abruptly. Some also say, “Based on whatever I have answered so far, you fill in the rest of the questions yourself.”

We need to get them involved in the “purpose” of the research. They should know why are we asking them these questions – It is for their own benefit so that we can make better products for them in future. With the knowledge about respondent motivation and ‘hot buttons’, researchers could influence response rates to online surveys.

Monetary incentives have been used extensively to make respondents participate in surveys. But we need to look beyond just extrinsic motivators. If monetary incentives are involved, many times the respondents just answer surveys for money. This leads to “professional respondents” who try to give fabricated answers in order to qualify for the survey so that they can earn the extra bucks!

Ideally, the approach should be of ‘Marketing 3.0’ where the respondent is considered as a consumer who is seeking value through the survey experience instead of an employee who is getting paid for doing a “chore” for the researcher. Like any marketer who motivates consumers to ‘try’ her new product by communicating with the consumer, the researcher should try to ‘market’ the survey to the respondent.

Pete Cape distinguishes different types of motivation based on the different goals that give rise to the desired behavior.  It has been observed that tasks completed with intrinsic motivation are characterized by high levels of engagement resulting in high quality and creativity, and enjoyment on the part of the doer. Hence, it becomes important for a researcher to induce intrinsic motivation in their respondents in order to obtain high quality responses. Motivation depends on the person and different individuals may be motivated by different stimuli. If a person has to transcend from the level of extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation, she has to internalize the focus of causality (“they are making me do this” vs. “I am doing this myself”).

For my thesis, I had asked each one of the respondents of my survey the reason they answered the survey, what motivated them to answer the survey? One factor that emerged in all cases that drives motivation among respondents is “Karma” or reciprocity. People tend to answer surveys to help the sender of the survey.

Martin Nowak talks about two kinds of reciprocity that is applicable to respondent motivation. The first one is called direct reciprocity. This is when individuals have repeated interactions, so if I help you now, you may help me later. This was true in the case of a student peer group that I surveyed as a part of my academic research.

“I feel the guy/girl would really need people to fill it up so I try to help out in my own little way. I guess I might need their help in future. Karma is the answer.”

There is also indirect reciprocity, which takes place in groups. If I help you, somebody else might see our interaction and conclude that I’m a helpful person, and help me later. That’s a reciprocal process relying on reputation. This is one factor that I noticed when I approached couples who were out on a date and the boy would happily answer my survey to impress his girlfriend! 😉

We really need to understand the respondent’s mindset deeply to find the key to unlock all barriers between the respondent and a completed survey! We still have a very long way to go…

TANVI GUPTA, Eternal Student and Research Executive at Millward Brown, India. Reach me on twitter @Tanvi_MR