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Paying people to do discovery interviews

Should you be paying people to talk to you?

Matt Foley
Matt Foley
3 min read

In "professional" customer research studies it's very common to offer incentives (i.e., cash, gift cards, discounts, etc.) for people to participate in one-on-one interviews and/or focus groups.

There are certain audiences or industries where it's not possible for legal/employer reasons, but I'd guesstimate that 90%+ of studies offer some form of compensation for participation (particularly in B2B customer research).

However, in the startup community offering an incentive is typically seen as bad practice, with some groups insistent that you should never offer incentives to participate. They argue it can bias the results, and are adamant you should be able to get busy people to talk to you out of self interest in solving their problems or just the goodness of their hearts.

So what should you do?

Well, unfortunately the answer is "it depends." Let me outline the pros and cons for you so you can make the call. Then I'll give you my recommendation.

Pros of offering incentives

Let's start with the good parts of offering incentives:

  1. More people participating - When you offer an incentive it will absolutely get more people to the phone/Zoom/coffee shop meeting with you.
  2. Complete your discovery faster - Offering incentives will also enable you to recruit people faster, particularly if you note in your outreach that you are interviewing a limited number of people (i.e., the incentives are scarce).
  3. It recognizes their valuable time - People are busy. Offering to pay them for their valuable time acknowledges that fact. This is particularly true in any kind of B2B discovery research, but is just as valid with busy consumers.
  4. It can reduce self-selection bias - Offering incentives can mitigate biases in the sample/group of people you talk to because it can make those who may be on the fence about participating more likely to participate.
  5. Higher quality responses - While there is some debate on this, offering an incentive can show how "serious" you are about hearing their opinion and gathering feedback on your concept, and potentially lead to higher quality responses as a result.

Cons of offering incentives

However, it's not all sunshine and rainbows. There are drawbacks to offering incentives for customer discovery interviews, including:

  1. It costs money - The most obvious drawback is that incentives cost money. If you're an early stage startup that is self-funding the venture this can be prohibitive, depending on how many interviews you choose to do and your target audience profile (i.e., B2B decision makers will typically require a higher incentive).
  2. It can increase self-selection bias - Wait, what?!? Yes, while it's true that incentives can reduce selection bias they can also increase it by attracting those who are just willing to talk for the incentive. This is why it's important to be very systematic about who you recruit and how you go about recruiting them (i.e., one-to-one outreach vs. sending out a request to an open forum).
  3. Social desirability bias - Some people believe that offering incentives can make people more inclined to "tell you what you want to hear" because they feel obligated to after receiving an incentive. I haven't observed that in any overt way over 20+ years of practice, but it's an argument some make against the use of incentives and worth mentioning here...
  4. Inducement to purchase - Some argue that incentives could be seen as a small form of a "bribe" or inducement to purchase/commit to something. Since reciprocation is a powerful motivator, they say incentives could make the interviewee feel obligated to do something. As long as you're not treating your discovery calls as sales calls in disguise, you should be fine in avoiding this.

So what do I recommend?

To me the pros of offering incentives outweigh the cons. Time is money. Offering an incentive will get (more of) the right people on the phone/Zoom with you faster. It could cut the time it takes to do your customer discovery from months to a few weeks. It also shows you're serious and value their time/opinions.

If you can afford it, I recommend offering to pay the person's typical hourly consulting rate in your initial outreach email. If in that same email you mention that you're an entrepreneur that is exploring a new startup/product/service idea, then some people might be willing to waive their fee to help you out.

If you're in an industry where people can't accept incentives for legal reasons and/or employer policies, then offer to make a donation to a charity of their choice instead.

If you're struggling to get people to answer your requests for discovery interviews then give incentives a shot. Maybe even try a small A/B test - offer an incentive to some people and then leave out the mention of an incentive to others to see what works better for you and your industry.

Regardless, I think you'll find that incentives can be helpful in completing your discovery research faster and getting the right people to talk to you. As usual though, YMMV...

Matt Foley

Customer discovery expert with 20+ years of helping everyone from entrepreneurs to enterprises talk to their customers and make smarter, customer-centric decisions.