Using a Small Cash Incentive to Increase Survey Response

  • John A. Cosgrove
Original Article


Surveys tend to yield low response rates among human service professionals. This study examined whether a randomly-assigned prepaid $2 incentive increased response rates over time, and was cost-effective for increasing response count, among social workers and volunteer mediators. The incentive was enclosed with a mixed-mode survey of factors related to burnout and intention-to-remain. The incentive increased response rates over time. The effect of the incentive did not differ between mediators and social workers. The $2 incentive was not cost-effective for increasing response count. Implications are discussed for reducing nonresponse bias, decreasing time-to-response, and considering response rate versus response count.


Survey research Response rate Incentive Mental health services research Behavioral health services research 



This research was supported with funding from University of Maryland School of Social Work.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

This author is employed by University of Maryland School of Social Work, and has received funding support for educational programs and attending symposia.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual respondents included in the study. This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors.


  1. Allison, P. D. (2004). Event history analysis. In M. B. Hardy (Ed.), Handbook for data analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Google Scholar
  2. Beebe, T. J., Rey, E., Ziegenfuss, J. Y., Jenkins, S., Lackore, K., Talley, N. J., et al. (2010). Shortening a survey and using alternative forms of prenotification: Impact on response rate and quality. BMC Medical Research Methodology, 10, 50–58. Scholar
  3. Beebe, T. J., Stoner, S. M., Anderson, K. J., & Williams, A. R. (2007). Selected questionnaire size and color combinations were significantly related to mailed survey response rates. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 60(10), 1184–1189. Scholar
  4. Dillman, D. A., Smyth, J. D., & Christian, L. M. (2014). Internet, phone, mail, and mixed-mode surveys: The Tailored Design Method (4th edn.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.Google Scholar
  5. Dirmaier, J., Harfst, T., Koch, U., & Schulz, H. (2007). Incentives increased return rates but did not influence partial nonresponse or treatment outcome in a randomized trial. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 60(12), 1263–1270. Scholar
  6. Donaldson, G. W., Moinpour, C. M., Bush, N. E., Chapko, M., Jocom, J., Siadak, M., et al. (1999). Physician participation in research surveys: A randomized study of inducements to return mailed research questionnaires. Evaluation & The Health Professions, 22(4), 427–441. Scholar
  7. Dykema, J., Jaques, K., Cyffka, K., Assad, N., Hammers, R. G., Elver, K., et al. (2015). Effects of sequential prepaid incentives and envelope messaging in mail surveys. Public Opinion Quarterly, 79(4), 906–931. Scholar
  8. Dykema, J., Stevenson, J., Day, B., Sellers, S. L., & Bonham, V. L. (2011). Effects of incentives and prenotification on response rates and costs in a national web survey of physicians. Evaluation & the Health Professions, 34(4), 434–447. Scholar
  9. Groves, R. M. (2006). Nonresponse rates and nonresponse bias in household surveys. Public Opinion Quarterly, 70(5), 646–675. Scholar
  10. Hawley, K. M., Cook, J. R., & Jensen-Doss, A. (2009). Do noncontingent incentives increase survey response rates among mental health providers? A randomized trial comparison. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 36(5), 343–348. Scholar
  11. Jobber, D., Saunders, J., & Mitchell, V. W. (2004). Prepaid monetary incentive effects on mail survey response. Journal of Business Research, 57(1), 21–25. Scholar
  12. Kasprzyk, D., Montaño, D. E., St. Lawrence, J. S., & Phillips, W, R. (2001). The effects of variations in mode of delivery and monetary incentive on physicians’ responses to a mailed survey assessing STD practice patterns. Evaluation & The Health Professions, 24(1), 3–17. Scholar
  13. Klakovich, M. D. (2005). Improving survey response rates. Sigma Theta Tau International 38th Biennial Convention, Indianapolis, IN. Abstract Retrieved March 20, 2016, from
  14. Knoll, M., Soller, L., Ben-Shoshan, M., Harrington, D., Fragapane, J., Joseph, L., et al. (2012). The use of incentives in vulnerable populations for a telephone survey: A randomized controlled trial. BioMed Central Research Notes, 5(1), 572–577. Scholar
  15. Messer, B. L., & Dillman, D. A. (2011). Surveying the general public over the internet using address-based sampling and mail contact procedures. Public Opinion Quarterly, 75(3), 429–457. Scholar
  16. Millar, M. M., & Dillman, D. A. (2011). Improving response to web and mixed-mode surveys. Public Opinion Quarterly, 75(2), 249–269. Scholar
  17. Newby, R., Watson, J., & Woodliff, D. (2003). SME survey methodology: Response rates, data quality, and cost effectiveness. Entrepreneurship: Theory & Practice, 28(2), 163–173. Scholar
  18. Oden, L., & Price, J. H. (1999). Effects of a small monetary incentive and follow-up mailings on return rates of a survey to nurse practitioners. Psychological Reports, 85, 1154–1156. Scholar
  19. Ryu, E., Couper, M. P., & Marans, R. W. (2006). Survey incentives: Cash vs. in-kind; face-to-face vs. mail; response rate vs. nonresponse error. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 18(1), 89–106. Scholar
  20. Schutt, R. K. (1999). Investigating the social world: The process and practice of research (2nd edn.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.Google Scholar
  21. Sharp, L., Cochran, C., Cotton, S. C., Gray, N. M., & Gallagher, M. E. (2006). Enclosing a pen with a postal questionnaire can significantly increase the response rate. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 59(7), 747–754. Scholar
  22. Singer, E., & Kulka, R. A. (2002). Paying respondents for survey participation. In M. Ver, R. A. Ploeg, Moffitt & C. F. Citro (Eds.), Studies of welfare populations: Data collection and research issues (pp. 105–128). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.Google Scholar
  23. Singer, E., & Ye, C. (2013). The use and effects of incentives in surveys. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 645(1), 112–141. Scholar
  24. Teisl, M. F., Roe, B., & Vayda, M. E. (2006). Incentive effects on response rates, data quality, and survey administration costs. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 18(3), 364–373. Scholar
  25. Ulrich, C. M., Danis, M., Koziol, D., Garrett-Mayer, E., Hubbard, R., & Grady, C. (2005). Does it pay to pay? A randomized trial of prepaid financial incentives and lottery incentives in surveys of nonphysician healthcare professionals. Nursing Research, 54(3), 178–183. Scholar
  26. VanGeest, J. B., & Johnson, T. P. (2011). Surveying nurses: Identifying strategies to improve participation. Evaluation & The Health Professions, 34(4), 487–511. Scholar
  27. VanGeest, J. B., Johnson, T. P., & Welch, V. L. (2007). Methodologies for improving response rates in surveys of physicians: A systematic review. Evaluation & The Health Professions, 30(4), 303–321. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Social WorkUniversity of Maryland, BaltimoreBaltimoreUSA

Personalised recommendations