Clinical Trial Participants And Incentives

Participants & Incentives

What does it take to incentivize an average person – a would-be participant – to become a subject in your study? How do you make it worth someone’s while to leave their house, drive to your facility, spend an hour giving opinions, filling out questionnaires, or taking medication and then going back home… to potentially return a few more times and repeat the process?

The easy answer may be money, but of course it’s not that simple. Too little, and a person won’t give up their time for your experiment; too much, and an IRB may stare over your shoulder to ensure you are not causing undue influence on your subjects. If you’ve already run a research study, you know that you are dealing with people, and people come with their own emotions, experiences, and biases. Money may not be the (only) answer when investigating something that’s near and dear to someone’s heart; showing potential results or progress towards a cure may be sufficient incentive in and of itself.

So when structuring your incentives, we recommend looking at several avenues to ensure that your incentive structure is moral and ethical, does not induce undue influence on the participant, and allows for the greatest chance of honest and unbiased responses and results.

What Are The Four Considerations of Clinical Trials?

#1 - Your Budget

Ensure that you can pay what you offer. If you are offering $25 gift cards to the first 30 survey participants, make sure you let participant #31 know that they are no longer eligible for a gift card, or stop the survey after participant #30 has submitted their response. Keep a close eye on the amount you can offer and what participants are expecting.

#2 - Money as an Incentive

Money can be offered as a token of appreciation or reimbursement for time or travel costs. Are you doing research on poverty, but your participant will need a car to get to your lab? Covering taxi costs may not be a bad idea here.

Remember that what defines a high or low monetary reimbursement is based on your target audience. If you are looking to get opinions from bankers, $200/hour for time spent on taking your survey may be a reasonable reimbursement for them missing an hour of work. On the other hand, $500/hour for a college student’s time may be pretty high and, just as importantly, may not get you the honest answers you seek. Additionally, if your budget for incentives is $200, eight $25 gift cards offered via random selection will likely yield more participation than $5 per participant.

#3 - Other Incentives

Other incentives may include prizes, random drawings, or food (a free lunch for a study done during work hours). Products for a demographic with shared interests is also a good incentive (e.g., if you are doing a focus group on headphones, free headphones may be a good incentive). If a study requires lots of travel or your lab is off the beaten path (of public transportation), providing round-trip taxi service, vouchers, or shuttle transportation may provide a simple solution to get willing participants to your lab.

Incentives will differ based on demographic availability, study location, length of time, and your budget. Research And Me never tells researchers what incentive, if any at all, to use, but we can assist with creative options for making the most of your budget. And of course remember: at the end of the day, would you want to travel to a research lab and spend several hours, all on your own dime?

#4 - Screening Participants

If your incentives work, many subjects will be interested in participating in your study – even those that don’t qualify. A good research subject will help your research with truthful responses if you properly pre-screen their qualifications and motivations. Use an in-depth survey in your pre-screening to disqualify participants who don’t meet your demographics or criteria. Build your questionnaires in such a way as to identify disqualifying attributes and red flags, without giving away what the qualification structure is.

For example, if you are looking for people whose favorite color is blue; don’t ask in the pre-screen if a participant’s favorite color is blue (“yes” or “no”). Instead, ask a multiple choice question about their favorite color with blue/yellow/green/white/purple as options, then mark the correct answers. Research & Me makes this process easy and automated using the pre-screening questionnaires that are part of a study listing. A good pre-screen will give you better results and can reduce your budget for incentives.


As you build your incentive structure, remember that participants are people like you, who have many different reasons for wanting to participate in research and who have different financial and logistical limitations. Pre-screen carefully, get approval for your incentive structure from your IRB, and make sure your budget goes to the right mechanisms – better recruitment and analysis ahead of time can save you lots of money and effort in the long-term, getting you quality responses and engagement.


For People.  For Progress. 

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