Postgraduate researchers Nicole Gwynne and Adam Davidson offer some advice on recruiting participants.
Congratulations! You’ve successfully navigated the labyrinth of ethical approval and you’re ready to start your study. You’re eager to examine your data and you can’t wait to wait patiently while SPSS loads.
There’s just one small problem: you don’t yet have any data. You need some participants to participate! Recruiting enough people to answer your questionnaire can seem daunting, but fear not, your fellow researchers are here to help. Here are ten top tips for receiving the required responses.
This article focuses on research surveys, if you’re looking for participants for face-to-face data collection (such as an interview or experiment) then see our next post (coming soon).
Aim at your target
If you have a specific target population, make your survey visible in the locations (real or virtual) they frequent. Where and when are they in contact with other people? You’re unlikely to be successful selling sandwiches on Saturn, so don’t open a shop there. Instead, investigate where to advertise your survey. Ask potential participants, and use websites, forums, and social media to find where they discover new things. This could be a real event, such as a conference or a concert, or a virtual location, such as a subreddit or a Twitter hashtag. Find the flow of information towards your target and join it just upstream.
There are around 500 million posts per day on Twitter.com alone (source: http://www.internetlivestats.com/twitter-statistics/). We all receive a constant barrage of information, so how will your study stand out? First you need to catch attention so that people can realise your research is interesting.
One way to achieve this is sheer volume, shouting loudly or being highly visible. If you can advertise your survey in many places so that your participants learn about it from many sources, they’re more likely to pay attention.
Another method is “shiny object syndrome”, drawing attention by standing out from the background. What makes your study special, and how can you communicate this immediately? Can you use an eye-catching image or large provocative words?
Advertisers often try to get our attention by appealing to our base desires, with words like “FREE!” or “WARNING!”. Your eyes were probably drawn to those as soon as they became visible on screen as they also stood out with size and colour. Be careful with these, as people are wary of this trick, and have learnt to ignore or quickly dismiss these attempts at attention. A much better method to get noticed is to bypass these automatic defences completely with a recommendation from a trusted source (see below).
Be personal and friendly
It may feel like a lot more work to individually ask for responses to your survey, but asking people directly gets you noticed, bypasses their “spam” filters, and engages empathy. People are more likely to be interested, to complete your questionnaire as a favour, and to share your survey with others if you take the time to talk with them. Ask respondents to share with other potential participants they know, as personal recommendations can grow exponentially and word-of-mouth is often the most effective means of marketing.
Don’t forget the real world
With the prevalence of internet-connected ever-present mobile devices, it’s a common mistake to focus on social media and online marketing to recruit participants to your survey. Whilst these can be really useful, don’t forget that your potential participants also have a real life physical presence! If you can recruit people from a specific location, such as the university cafe, then go there and mingle. If your target population attend specific events or conferences, then those will be prolific places to put yourself, or your flyers. Having a real world presence helps to get you noticed, get you trusted, and to have personal interactions – all of which lead to increased participation.
Potential participants can talk themselves out of completing a study for a variety of reasons, telling themselves that they “don’t have time” or that they “don’t want their information shared”. You can increase your completion rate by taking a few simple steps to reassure them about these risks. Let them know in advance how long the study will take so they can schedule it into their day. Ensure participants know what will you will do with their information: tell them their responses are anonymous and their details won’t be sold to marketing companies. Be clear that your study has received ethical approval from a trustworthy organisation so there won’t be any nasty surprises and they know they won’t be conned. Provide contact information for yourself or support groups (such as the Samaritans) should they run into any problems. If you can think of any other reasons not to complete your survey then try to address them in advance, but avoid big scary blocks of convoluted legalese, be personal and friendly.
Unfortunately, your questionnaire is unlikely to be your participant’s highest priority. We all have busy lives and a multitude of things to do each day. Being considerate and making sure your survey is easy to complete is not only polite, but it will increase the number of completions, improve your chances of getting participants to return for a second measure, and also the likelihood that they will share it with others. People are unlikely to ask their friends to suffer a gruelling and confusing survey, so make it quick to complete and simple to understand. Make your invitation easy to share. Provide people with a link to copy and paste, or better a template email to send. You can print flyers or information sheets for participants to pass on. It’s always useful to have a few people (perhaps a pilot study) to check your everything runs smoothly before launching it to your target sample.
Allow plenty of time to recruit
Finding people, attracting their interest, gaining their trust, and having them find a spare few minutes to complete your survey will take likely longer that you expect. Schedule as much time as possible to the data collection phase. This will allow you to test different methods of finding participants, to answer people’s questions, and for referrals to pass along the network. If possible, offer people appointments to complete the survey. Advertising an event and bringing incentives will encourage people to take time out of their day to complete your survey.
Avoid common pitfalls
When seeking participants, researchers often make a few mistakes that are easily avoided:
- If your survey is on paper, then make sure you print enough copies.
- If you’re printing flyers that advertise an online survey, try to make the URL simple and memorable. For example, people are more likely to navigate successfully to http://www.brianpsychology.com/survey than to http://www.surveysonline.com/MDo2lS9_cz3sPb2.asp.
- Make sure your survey works on all platforms – computer, tablet and smartphone.
- Another convenient tool is a QR code. These 2D barcodes can be scanned by mobile phones which takes people directly to your survey. QR codes are easy to create with free online tools, and make finding your survey very simple for participants.
- If you’re using social media or SMS to share your links, a URL shortening service (such as Bitly) will allow you (or people who share it) more characters to describe (and persuade!).
- It’s worth having separate social media accounts for personal and professional use so that people looking to complete your questionnaire on underage alcohol abuse don’t accidentally see those photos from your Ibiza girls holiday.
- Use of Social Media hashtags and retweets can bring your survey to a large audience. Ensure you use this correctly so that your questionnaire on #vegan_living isn’t bombarded with responses from @carnivore_club.
You don’t necessarily need to pay participants with ice-cream, and this may have an impact on your results if you do! However, it’s definitely worth giving people a reason to give up their time. If you can offer a prize draw or extra credit on their coursework then this can encourage participation. However, you can get a long way with people’s generosity, especially if they are friends, family, or have received a personal referral. Make sure that all participants feel appreciated and important, and that they understand the reason you’re doing the research. Why are you doing the study? What is it about this knowledge that could improve the world? Put yourself in their position and think about what would make you want to participate for someone else.
Give and ye shall receive
Reciprocity can also get you access to some other participants. There are some websites that allow you to share your survey and complete surveys shared by others. SurveyCircle (www.surveycircle.com/en/), for example, advertises questionnaires ordered by how many surveys the researcher has completed, so the more you answer the more likely it is that others will answer your survey. It also provides a useful time estimation of how long surveys will take so you know how much time to set aside. SwapSurvey (www.swapsurvey.com/) is a similar website. It promises that the time you spend answering questionnaires will be matched by others answering your surveys. On these websites, studies that are open to everyone usually get better responses, but you can still collect data from specific participants if required.
So there you have it. Time to take these tips and start collecting participants. If you apply them all you shouldn’t have to wait a long time until you’re waiting a long time for SPSS to load. Enjoy examining your data, writing up your research, and receiving the plaudits from your peers.