Our industry, which is still recovering from the most recent downturn, is now counting the cost of incentives that have risen beyond the rate of inflation. Sure, we understand that when people are time poor they need to be enticed to attend. The practice of some unscrupulous recruiters, who try and manipulate companies by telling them the current rate and refusing to work for less, is not so acceptable.

Respondents occasionally see research as an additional source of income. They know their worth — often linked to their hourly business rate. This is particularly true of niche targets like professional people, high net worth individuals and regular business flyers.

Equally clients, unhappy about rates that outstrip inflation, are seeking ways to reduce costs. They are much less willing, for example, to pay respondents’ expenses such as travel or babysitting.

Timing of payments has also become an issue. Traditionally, this took place before groups. Now, however, there are horror stories of respondents being paid large incentives beforehand then disappearing.

A solution is payment on completion and might encourage respondents to work harder throughout the session. One researcher even suggested introducing payment in coins at the beginning of the group — deducting or adding to them subject to their ensuing performance! And how much should we pay respondents who arrive late or leave early: surely not the same as others who have contributed fully?

Research has also become much more invasive. Clients and researchers demand more information from respondents. This might involve compiling a diary of existing brand or service usage, or asking them to visit a specific store, make a video or take photographs prior to attending the group.

And it’s not just a matter of more work beforehand. They may also want respondents to take a product away after a group, try it, complete a diary about it or do a telephone or web interview. Jobs with this level of input will offer more as they are harder to recruit.

If these tasks are completed properly, they are often time-consuming and respondents are not recompensed adequately for the time/work ratio. It’s interesting that people’s time in a group is valued far higher than their time alone, performing additional tasks which may actually be harder as they need to be motivated and spend time thinking and planning alone.

The highest paid respondents

  • Doctors
  • IT Consultants
  • Business flyers
  • Board directors
  • High net worth individuals
  • People with unusual cars
  • Self-employed people/tradesmen
  • Patients
  • People to discuss personal finance
  • Early adopters

There is a strong argument for there being two rates: one for Greater London and another for the rest of the country. Salaries and living expenses are higher in the capital, while people are less flexible with their time.

Incentives can now cost more than the recruitment. If we are to control this situation we need to create an industry norm and regulate incentive levels. We also need to deal not just with the problem of recruiter manipulation, but with those who dabble in qualitative research and pay way over the odds, thus setting an unfortunate precedent.

Setting an industry standard would remove any uncertainty and create a more even playing field, making it far easier to price jobs. Ultimately this will benefit everyone. If incentive levels are allowed to rise unchecked, the industry will pay the price given that clients may do less research.

‘Rate cards’ already exist, with incentive levels partly driven by market forces and partly by a desire to keep costs reasonable for clients. My suggestion is to create an annual industry survey that would give a broad picture of the situation and make it easier for us to set our own levels.

AQR was set up specifically to look after the interests of those involved in qualitative research. I would like to see it become a membership criterion that we complete such a survey. It is, after all, an area that affects us all and the resulting knowledge would empower us in our dealings with clients and recruiters.