Students Go Online to Make Money – and Sometimes a Free Meal

photo by Trea Lavery

Last month, fifth year theatre major Megan Maloney made $200 for an hour and a half of work, and all she did was order a pizza and talk about it.

She is a user on the website Focusgroup.com, which allows those who sign up to participate in paid surveys and focus groups. A recent focus group that she was eligible for involved discussing her thoughts on pizza delivery and ordering a pizza through the Domino’s smartphone app, which she then got to take home.

“I was joking that I got paid to eat pizza, but I mean, I kinda did,” said Maloney. “I got $200 and a free pizza, so it wasn’t too bad.”

She has also participated in focus groups this year about smartphone advertising and birth control, as well as many online surveys.

Maloney is not unique among students for using the Internet as a source of income. Websites and apps which allow users to make money have become increasingly common. Some, such as Focusgroup.com, MySurvey, SwagBucks, and Opinion Outpost, offer paid surveys. Others use different miscellaneous tasks, such as Rev.com, which has users write captions for videos for client companies, and the Foap app, which lets users sell their smartphone pictures as stock photos. However, some say Internet work has its drawbacks.

These websites and apps are especially popular among college students, who often need money, but don’t have time for a steady job. Maloney usually has rehearsals at night, so she has even less time than most to work. However, she has completed three focus groups between last spring semester and this fall semester, and has made just under $500 for around eight hours of work.

“The ease of being able to hop on your laptop and make some quick money definitely seems a bit appealing,” said Victor Brailoiu, CEO of Thrive, Northeastern University’s Center for Financial Independence. Thrive gives personal finance counseling for students and runs programs to educate students in financial literacy. However, not all users can be as lucky as Maloney in making so much money with so little work.

According to Elizabeth Lally, another member of the Thrive team, some websites pay very little – sometimes as little as 45 cents per survey. Because of that, online work is not reliable enough to be a real job.

“If you need money for gas or going out, great,”  Lally said. “But it’s not necessarily a replacement for if you need to be buying textbooks or putting it towards your tuition.”

Also, online jobs are not a steady source of income. Emily Egner, a representative of Focus Pointe Global, the company which runs Focusgroup.com, says that a user can expect to be chosen for a focus group about every six months, because the companies that run the studies can have very specific criteria for who they want to participate. Potential participants have to take a screening survey to see if they are eligible at first, which usually they are not. After making it through the first stage, a selection of those who are eligible receive a phone call during which they are asked similar questions to make sure that they truly do fit the criteria for the study.

“It’s easy to get frustrated because you can take a screener and not be eligible, but if you stick with it and keep trying most of the time you’ll find something that you’re matched with,” Egner says. “Patience is key, and a little bit of luck.”

Brailoiu recommends that students be very careful if they do choose to use websites to make money.

“I can see something like filling out a survey: ‘Put in your billing information and you’ll get a hundred bucks in your account,’ ” he said. “I can see a hundred bucks going missing very easily.”

Survey websites do not register with the state attorney general’s office, so potential users need to do their own research to make sure a site is not a scam.

Maloney understands that she can’t make a living doing focus groups and surveys, but she’s satisfied with her experience so far.

“I need a way to make money on the side that’s not a commitment,” she said, “and this is exactly what it is.”