Exploring the Participant Experience: A 2023 Sense-Check

Market Research can be an interesting and flexible way for people to earn some extra money on the side of their main jobs. Beyond just money, there are several factors that motivate people to participate in market research. Most enjoy market research quite a bit, though, of course, there are things about the experience that could be improved. We recently conducted qualitative research to better understand the participant experience in 2023. We will detail key motivations for participating in market research, pain points in the process, and incentive preferences below. 

Motivations for Participation

Money is a key motivator for participation in market research. For the most part, nobody reported that they were participating in research purely for the enjoyment of doing so. Factors like being interested in a topic, meeting others, contributing to a brand one likes, or knowing about products before other people are add-ons, but they aren’t enough to get people to participate alone. As one participant, Jonathan, puts it, “I think financial brings people to the table, and the social is the icing. If you can find something or somebody that shares an opinion, or you have common interest, it’s, you know, it's a perk, but I think everybody's there for the incentive.” Incentives get people in the door and keep them there - anything else is just icing. A notable exception to this is product testing. People are willing to accept lower, or even zero, incentives when product testing something they’re interested in (e.g., a video game) or something they’ll use (e.g., food, household products, etc.). Robert feels that “With product tests, I think I would go a bit cheaper. The lowest I've gone is literally $5, so I'm fine with going that low for a product test. But it definitely depends on the type of research, so like focus groups or interviews, $50 minimum per hour.”

Defining Market Research

Money as a main motivator ties into the deeper question of how participants think about and treat market research as a whole. For most, market research is somewhere between a side hustle and a hobby. It occupies a space between being fully transactional and being passion-based. While most enjoy market research, all express having run into issues on both the monetary and experiential fronts. 

Compensation Expectations

In terms of compensation, participants often feel under-compensated and taken advantage of. When it comes to the screening process, they are often put through lengthy screeners with terminations or scheduling information (i.e., potential conflicts) at the very end. Fieldwork specifically is called out for poor recruitment process quality. In terms of the projects themselves, participants can choose not to participate in studies that don’t meet their minimum hourly pay (which is around $40-$50 per hour across participants), but they’re often not given honest information about a project’s required time commitment. This means that they can’t accurately calculate an hourly wage ahead of time. Participants express that researchers often require 15-minute, unadvertised tech checks before studies that aren’t compensated for. Researchers also often run focus groups or IDIs 5-20 minutes late, reach out with follow-up questions and don’t make it clear whether incentives are conditional upon answering these questions, and are sometimes just plain rude or unprofessional. Privacy is also a concern, with several participants wondering why companies need social media information or full addresses (vs. a zip code) during the screening process. Overall, participants are asking for more transparency - more transparency in the screening process, scheduling process, and in how PII is being used and why.

Implications and Action Steps

So, what are the implications of these findings? Well, there are some changes we can make to the recruitment and fieldwork processes. Firstly, we have to come together as an industry and agree to make said changes standardized across the board. If any one entity is treating participants poorly, it impacts all of us and gives the entire industry a bad reputation. Several specific changes can be made to improve the participant experience. To better respect respondents’ time, we must agree to make screeners as short as possible and ensure that termination points are at the beginning of screeners rather than the end. It is also important to give participants more visibility into the process so they don’t feel blindly led around. Being more transparent with participants about scheduling and what we use PII for would help participants feel more respected and informed. We need to be honest about the time commitment, including vetting, tech checks, and requesting participants to log in early ahead of a focus group or interview. We then need to make sure that we stick to that time commitment for any given study is another way to show respect and build trust. These might sound like a lot of changes, but they’re rather small changes to make, especially considering our participant pool, our lifeblood as an industry, is what’s on the line. 

We need to stop thinking of participants as adversaries, potential scammers, and/or products. When we do so, it shows in our conduct, whether that be through our screener designs, our study designs, or the conduct of moderators. A small shift in mindset can go a long way. At base, all people want to feel respected, valued, and human - our participants included.