How To Successfully Recruit Participants for A Study (2022 Edition)

Whether you’re recruiting participants for a B2B or a B2C research study, here the steps you need and the best recruiting methods for a successful project.


At its very core, successful, informative, useful research is dependent on the participants that are recruited for a study. Recruiting is not about finding a certain number of people, but about identifying the exact “right” people specific to the study and that study’s objectives. 

5 STEPS TO A SUCCESSFUL RECRUITMENT STRATEGY FOR PARTICIPANTS

To do this involves several steps. When you take the time to meticulously go through these steps, the results will be a successful recruit and a successful recruit will mean a successful project and that means a happy client or team and research results that can make a positive impact on your business or initiative. 

STEP 1. DEFINE YOUR IDEAL PARTICIPANT PROFILE

If you don’t take the time to specifically define your participant profile you might as well not conduct the research because without the “right” participants your results will be skewed or invalid and could lead you down the wrong path. 

The first step to figuring out who the study participants should be is to determine the objectives of your project. To do this bring your team and your client team together to discuss and answer these questions: 

  • What do you want to learn from doing this research that you don’t already know?
  • What do you already know, or think you already know in terms of what you want to learn?
  • Why do you want to learn this? What business decisions do you want to be able to make, or actions do you want to take, when this research is complete?  In other words, what do you want to DO with the insights and learnings after you have them?

Be very specific in your answers and your final objectives. Too broad an objective or too many objectives and you won’t learn enough about any one thing to be valuable. 

Now that you’ve determined the objective of your research you are ready to create a profile based on who has the knowledge, background, education and experience to answer the questions you’ll need answered. 

Whether your research is B2B or B2C, along with the specific objectives of your research will determine how extensive the requirements are for your participants.

For example, if you’re doing a B2C study exploring new candy flavors for children, age 6-12, the participant profile might be as simple as:

  • Must eat and like candy
  • Must have no food allergies
  • Must be open to trying new foods and flavors 
  • Must be articulate and enthusiastic.

You might also recruit for a mix of ethnicities, an even gender split and household income requirements.

Versus

If you’re doing a B2B study about software use, the participant requirements might include:

  • Which industry they’re in
  • What professional level they’re at
  • Have X+ years in their position 
  • Use of specific software 
  • Reached a certain educational level
  • Not having worked at certain companies or in certain industries
  • Not having used certain technologies
  • Are articulate and enthusiastic

And you will likely need to have some of the same demographic screens from above as well. 

Keep in mind that the more extensive and specific the qualifiers, the lower the incidence (or pool) of potential qualified participants. This means the more difficult and costly it will be to recruit your study. 

STEP 2. CREATE SCREENERS TO WEED OUT THE UNQUALIFIED AND WANNABES AND QUALIFY THE “RIGHT” PARTICIPANTS

No matter the number of screens required for your participant, you still want to screen for articulateness and willingness to participate. Even if a candidate has all the “right” qualifications, if they’re unwilling to or can’t share their experiences, opinions and feelings they are simply unqualified to participate.

Today screening surveys are often used to cast a wide net and quickly weed out participants that don’t qualify at the lowest level. These surveys can be sent via an email or link to thousands of candidates. But time, trouble and costs can be saved up front if the screening survey is sent out to a more targeted and potentially qualified audience. 

A survey should always be followed by screening those who pass the survey “test” by having a screening conversation with the candidate using a pre-written screener that asks additional, deeper qualifying questions.

Creating a carefully and well-designed screener that is easily understandable by first the recruiter and their call center staff and then by the needed audience is imperative to the success of the recruit. To achieve this, carefully review the screener with the recruiter to make sure each question and the responses that qualify or terminate a candidate are well understood.

As recruiting for research projects has moved from professional recruiters using lists more-and-more to leveraging social media and other Internet platforms for recruiting, a blight of professional researchers AKA research imposters has popped up. Because of these posers, leading questions with obvious choices for response should be avoided in screeners and screening surveys. This can be achieved by offering some multiple-choice responses that will mis-direct unqualified candidates and asking questions where only truly qualified candidates would choose a qualifying response.  

For the highest response rates, screeners should be as short and succinct as possible while still posing all the questions needed to identify qualified participants. Along the same lines be honest about how long the survey and conversation will take. Nothing will turn a potential participant off faster than telling them, “This will take five minutes,” and taking fifteen. 

STEP 3. RECRUITING METHODS: WHAT WOULD BE THE MOST SUCCESSFUL RECRITING METHOD BASED ON THE PARTICIPANT PROFILE

Choosing how you’ll recruit and who is your recruiting partner is key to recruit success. Your recruiting resource needs two things, understanding of who your participant profile is and depth of the candidates that fit the profile you’re looking for. 

For example: recruiting from something like Craig’s List, while admittedly used by many recruiters, is too un-focused and reaches too broad and disparate a crowd to truly be helpful. While it offers depth it has no mechanism for the understanding or context of the participants you need.

Not all recruiting methods will work well for all recruits. Much like the story of The Three Bears, it’s important to find the recruiting method that fits “just right” for the audience you need to recruit. Let’s take a look at some of the recruiting method options.

B2C recruiting: Most (but not all) consumer recruiting is easier than most B2B recruits. This is because for most consumer studies there is a higher incidence of potential participants and require far less qualifiers overall as well as far less stringent ones. Like the example of the candy study above, it’s pretty darn easy to find kids who like candy. 

Because of this, a wide variety of recruiting methods will, generally, work for B2C recruits. These include:

  • Traditional methods: Focus Group Facilities that recruit, other large recruiting firms, boutique and independent recruiters all use existing lists and can supplement with placing ads (Broadcasting) when needed.
  • Client databases of their consumers: This works when participants need to be customers of the client. It can be used in conjunction with other recruiting methods when a study calls for both customers and non-customers.
  • Word-of-Mouth and Snowballing: Word-of-Mouth is an extremely cost-effective way to recruit and works well when very few screens or qualifiers are needed or when “word-of-mouth” is spread through a specific demographic or professional community. Similarly, Snowballing is when you ask recruited participants to invite a friend or friends that might qualify.
  • Non-Professional Social Media platforms like Facebook and Twitter: Putting the word out randomly on a social media platform can be a cost-effective method to recruit when a generic profile of participants is needed. If a more specific profile is required targeting specific groups or communities within a social media platform can be effective.

B2B recruiting: Most B2B projects require a more focused and intense recruit. As we discussed above, B2B participants likely will have many more and more specific requirements to qualify. This calls for a more specialized or unique recruiting method. These include: 

  • Specialized Recruiters: Recruiters who specialize in certain demographics or professions like tech, financial, medical, etc. can be the solution when your participants all must belong to the same profession. Specialized Recruiters can be especially key to finding and booking C or VP-level professionals—possibly the most difficult recruit to accomplish.
  • Recruiting platforms: Some recruiting platforms, like Respondent have, literally millions of professionals pre-qualified for their willingness to participate in research as well as to their professional credentials. Respondent also offers additional features that make recruiting and participant management turnkey, Recruiting Platforms, including Respondent can come to the rescue when you need a fast, yet high-quality recruit. 
  • Broadcasting/Running ads: Placing ads or announcements where your qualified participants would likely see them, including websites, trade journals, association platforms and media. This is often used to boost the pool of potential participants for the primary recruiting method being used.
  • Purchased lists from associations or company directories: For truly difficult recruits sometimes you just have to spend the money and get a totally targeted list. Before purchasing a list, check association websites, some might list members with contact information.
  • Professional Social Media Platforms like Linkedin.com. With one of the more robust (and expensive) memberships you can search by specific professions, view member profiles where you can check their credentials, background and title.
  • Relationship Recruiting: This is a great solution if you need to continually conduct research with a specific audience. Build and leverage relationships with the people, companies and associations that are relevant to your target industries for recruiting.

As you might have guessed, recruiting can get expensive but given the importance of the “right” participants to the outcome of your study, recruiting is not the place you want to cut costs. 

STEP 4: DETERMINE HOW MANY PARTICIPANTS YOU NEED 

Deciding how many participants you need for your project is a delicate balance between budget, time and research needs. 

The minimum number needed is dependent on several factors:

  • What is the subject of your research? Example: the optimum number for straight forward UX research is 5-10. As you’ll see, that number is much smaller than for most types of research. 
  • How many markets do you need to cover for your research or could remote research, where you include participants from multiple markets work?
  • Do you need to conduct the research with different audiences, if so, how many?
  • Do you need to segment your groups by gender?
  • If you are conducting research with kids, you’ll need to segment the groups by age range and possibly by gender. 

These scenarios will add significantly to the number of participants you need to sufficiently represent each market and each audience. This number becomes even greater when you have multiple audiences, genders or kids’ ages across multiple markets. 

How Many Participants for A Focus Groups

Now that we’ve complicated matters, let’s simplify them. Generally speaking, across a wide variety of research subjects, a good rule of thumb for the minimum number of focus groups and participants in one market would be four groups with eight participants per group so 32 participants (and researchers will disagree on this). You would not need to multiple by the number of markets or audiences. Adding a couple of groups total per audience/age/location will allow you to see if there are differences by segments.

You can do this across markets by “flip-flopping” groups. Here’s an example of how this might look for nine groups with three audiences, 10-12-year-olds, 13, 14-year-olds and moms across two markets:

 

Markets

10-12-Year-Olds

13,14-Year-Olds

Moms

Market 1

2 groups

1 group

2 groups

Market 2

1 group

2 groups

1 group

 

As you can see, each audience is represented in each market but without having to double the number of participants overall. 

How Many Participants For I-D-Is?

Researchers differ as to the optimum number of one-one-one-in-depth interviews needed to be conducted for a study. Some suggest 8-12, while others feel that no less than 25 are needed. Our recommendation—certainly no less than 8 assuming you’re looking at one audience, but as many as reasonable that your budget will allow for. 

Over Recruiting, A Must

A reality of research recruiting is the no-show participants. To account for this you should always over recruit. If you want to seat 8 for a focus group, recruit 10. If you want to conduct 20 I-D-Is you would want to recruit 3-4 additional participants. 

STEP 5: DECIDE ON INCENTIVES

Incentives are a must. Why? Of course, to motivate participants to sign on, to insure they’ll show up and to inspire high, enthusiastic participation and truthful responses. More importantly, incentives show you respect and value participant’s time, expertise, opinions and emotions. 

There is not a one-incentive-fits-all. Incentives must be figured out based on different rates for different types of research, length of sessions and even industries and titles of participants. Some factors include:

  • The longer the session, the higher the incentive.
  • In-person sessions will require a higher incentive than remote.
  • Focus groups vs. IDI’s vs. ethnographies (such as dine-alongs, shop-alongs and home visits) vs. diary studies each require a different level of incentive. The more “skin-in-the-game” for participants, the higher the incentive.
  • Professionals who participate who are at higher income levels such as doctors, C-levels and VPs will require substantially higher incentives to motivate them to participate at all. 

RECRUTING IT’S A LOT, BUT WORTH IT

There is no doubt that recruiting takes a lot of time, diligence and money. But there’s also no doubt that the success of your project is worth every minute and dollar spent on recruiting. For additional tips on recruiting go to Respondent.

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