Donuts to increase survey completion

Place: Philadelphia, PA
Partners: Center for Economic Development (CFED), Consumer Credit Counseling of the Delaware Valley (CCCSDV)
Status: Complete

Behavioral Challenge

How can we get people who are living in poverty, overwhelmed, and deeply in debt to overcome hassles and take time to complete and mail back a survey?


CCCSDV offers debt management plans for people struggling with debt. People can enroll in the program and CCCSDV will help them manage and pay-off their debt slowly

Lots of people are offered the program, a few enroll, and many drop out. CCCSDV wanted to find out more about why some people never enroll, why others drop out and what they could do about it. They sent out hundreds of surveys but the response rate was low – about 10%.

Very often, when people are deeply in debt, they tend to do what we all do when we have a challenge we don’t want to face: we put our heads in the sand and hope the problem goes away. Because debt collectors often communicate by mail, people in debt may stop opening their mail, which made mail-based surveys a challenging way for CCCSDV to communicate. But this was the only channel they had available so we had to find a way to make their messages as compelling as possible. 


There is solid research on the power of “pre-incentives” on increasing responsiveness for things like surveys (see this very helpful meta analysis from the British Medical Journal).

A traditional incentive might work like this: You get a letter in the mail saying “complete this survey and we’ll send you a gift certificate for free doughnuts!” With a pre-incentive, you open a letter and the gift is already inside. You don’t have to do anything – there’s a token there for the taking.

We are wired to be extremely sensitive to ideas of fairness and reciprocity. When someone does something nice for us we feel a strong urge to reciprocate. And it can feel very uncomfortable to take a “gift” and give nothing in return.

I worked with CCCSDV to design and send out almost 1,000 surveys to people who had enrolled, dropped out or rejected the program in three conditions:

  • A survey asking people to respond – no incentive is given. 
  • A survey asking people to respond and promising a gift (a $5 Dunkin’ Donuts gift card) upon completion. 
  • A survey with a “pre-incentive” included (a $5 Dunkin’ Donuts gift card), thanking people in advance for helping.


Among those enrolled or who declined DMP, the pre-incentive letter increased the response rate by 30 percentage points, basically more than tripling the response rate over the standard (non-incentive) letter.


Results are statistically significant at the 99% confidence level.

The pre-incentive letter increased response rates for those who enrolled in the program as well as those who declined DMP – this second group had proven especially difficult to reach.

Read more

Mmmmmmm. The Power of Doughnuts.