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Offering Air Miles to participants brings unexpected success for surveys

Professor Lyle Palmer, Executive Director of the Ontario Health Study.


A possible answer to one of the toughest problems researchers face – getting people to answer surveys – has come in the form of Air Miles: giving consumers points just as they get by shopping for pet food, gasoline or wine.

"It's a bit of a game-changer in terms of defining a new model for research," said Lyle Palmer, executive scientific director for the Ontario Health Study, which rewarded 35 Air Miles for answering questions to its ongoing survey on common risk factors for disease, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease. The recent call to action drew 89,000 participants, out of some 200,000 who have filled out the survey so far. "No study in history has collected this much data on this many people this quickly," Dr. Palmer said.

That dramatic success has spurred others to follow suit. On Friday, the Canadian Mental Health Association Ontario is hoping to entice people, especially those aged 18 to 40, to answer 30 mental-health questions on a Facebook-based self-assessment survey (with an eye to catching those early who may have issues brewing). In return for doing the survey, respondents get 20 Air Miles.

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"This is a test," said Lorne Zon, chief executive officer of the CMHA Ontario, noting that it is starting first in Ontario and then may branch out to the rest of Canada, depending on the results. "We've never done it before."

Avril Goffredo, vice-president, corporate and community engagement at the Heart and Stroke Foundation, said the enticement of earning 10 Air Miles last year drew 76,000 people to do risk online assessments for heart disease and stroke over a two-month period.

"Normally for us to reach that level of [people completing the]risk assessment," Ms. Goffredo says, "it would take eight to nine months."

Other health-oriented reward programs across the country include one in New Brunswick, where people earned Air Miles after joining a smoking cessation program; another in St. John's, where those taking the bus earn points (and double the amount when taking it on Friday and Saturday nights); and future plans to reward Canadians who get flu shots or work out at their local gym.

Owen Ward is the national director, health promotion incentives, of Air Miles for Social Change – a branch of the loyalty-program operator that launched 26 months ago to encourage consumers to make healthier choices. Mr. Ward says Canadians are among the most avid points collectors in the world, with two-thirds of households – or some 10 million people – having active Air Miles accounts.

Air Miles for Social Change tries to leverage that bulk by helping its partners do good. It works with governments and non-profit organizations, such as the Toronto Transit Commission, that reward riders with Air Miles for purchasing annual passes; participants learn of the surveys through e-mail, direct mail, TV and radio advertisements. The result is that organizations such as the CMHA Ontario are able to reach a large audience at a reduced cost – as much as 97 per cent less, in some cases, compared to more traditional advertising and telephone surveys.

To many, it may seem odd that, for 20 Air Miles, Canadians would take a few minutes to answer intimate questions, given there is nothing they can redeem until 95 miles.

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But according to Ken Wong, a marketing professor at Queen's University, it taps into that "whole idea of getting something for nothing." While the Air Miles are not necessarily an inducement to purchase something people otherwise wouldn't buy, Mr. Wong said they are "an inducement to act quickly. "

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