Postgraduate researchers Nicole Gwynne and Adam Davidson offer some further advice on recruiting participants.
Asking people to give you their time can seem scary, whether you’re seeking a romantic date or participation in your scientific study. Face-to-face interviews and experiments can appear laborious and inconvenient, so many researchers become bashful regarding recruitment.
Don’t worry, there is a simple process to follow when pursuing potential participants for in-person research. We can’t guarantee it’ll work for your romantic dating life, but here are the steps to getting the dates that yield data.
This article focuses on recruiting participants for face-to-face research. If you’re looking for participants for a survey then see this sister post.
1. Don’t rush
With any research, give yourself as much time as possible. Even if you’re only seeking small numbers of participants, recruitment requires patience. It often takes longer than you’d expect just to find people who meet your requirements, and then longer still to find a way to get in touch with them. Often people of particular interest (such as successful athletes, artists, or business-leaders) have gatekeepers protecting their privacy, and you’ll need to persuade these to give you access first. Once you have sourced and contacted potential participants you still need to give them time to consider your offer and then to arrange an appointment that suits them (should they decide to contribute).
2. Gather intelligence
Make sure that you know exactly who you want to invite, and think about how they behave. Social media sites are a great place to start scouting. Even before contacting people, you can gather a lot of information about your target sample. What pages are they likely to follow on Twitter? What Facebook groups are they likely to be in? What events are they likely to attend? Knowing where your potential participants are makes the search much easier. Take the time to also discover any barriers preventing communication and what incentives may persuade them to participate.
3. Search for your sample
After some preliminary research, you’ll know where to go for participants. You may be able to post a request or advertisement on the forums or websites you found, or go to a networking event attended by your targets. Conferences may allow you to distribute flyers or advertise in the programme. Or maybe a poster campaign around campus is the way to start? Rather than trying to attract people’s attention away from what they’re doing, place your offer where they already are.
If you cannot access potential participant’s contact information, you can ask relevant organisations or peers to give you access, to offer an introduction or even to share your study directly. Referrals are usually the most effective way to get your offer considered.
4. Initiate communication
Now that you know where to find your target sample, it’s time to be brave and make contact. Use whatever communication channel your target will pay attention to: LinkedIn, Twitter, or even an old-fashioned letter. If you talk to people in person, then a prompt follow-up referring to your meeting will help them remember their enthusiasm to participate.
Whilst you should be wary of people’s privacy concerns and careful about contacting people you don’t know (as this can be considered spam), most people will be flattered when you ask them to help. Your invitation is a compliment, not an inconvenience.
5. Take away the fear
Your research will be more tempting to participants if it’s interesting and hassle-free. You should charm their curiosity, but it’s most important to calm their concerns. Ensure that important details are clear: spell out what will be required of the participant, where they can find out more, and what will happen with their data. Rather than repeating the same information to each person, generate template you can re-use. Have this checked by another researcher for typos, omissions, and errors.
Within your template text, allow room for alterations and additions. Make your messages personal, address your potential participants by name, and show you appreciate their contribution. Be flexible and offer appointments that fit with their schedule.
6. Optimise your offer
Put yourself in your participant’s shoes, and make the experience as convenient as possible. Must the session be in a lab, or could you meet at a location closer to them? You should never risk your own safety when meeting strangers alone, but there are plenty of public places, such as cafes and libraries, where you could get together. If your study is qualitative, could you interview by Skype?
Small bribes (a cup of coffee, a chocolate muffin) can work well to attract local participants and to put them at ease. If you are expecting your participant to travel a long way, an offer of travelling expenses would be helpful, should your budget permit. Always remember to allow your participant a few minutes to recover from their journey on arrival: an offer of a drink or of a bathroom break is courteous. And, of course, always arrive first, so that you are organised, professional and welcoming on their arrival.
However embarrassed you are to ask people to give you their time, remember that research needs participants. Rather than reject you, you’ll find that most people will be flattered that you value their opinion, and delighted to have the opportunity to voice it. Let them know you are interested in them, and make that data date.