Participant recruitment, particularly if you need large sample sizes, can be a difficult and initially daunting task. Over the last few years, I’ve collected a few different ways of recruiting participants for online studies, so I thought it was about time I brought them together into a blog post in case they can be helpful to anyone else.
One caveat I will add is that I am primarily a psychology/health sciences researcher, so you may find that some methods are tailored more closely to that field – but hopefully these will still give you some starting points even if you are outside the social sciences. Also, I have only ever used these methods for recruiting relatively heterogeneous general population samples. If you have very specific inclusion or exclusion criteria, you may find their efficacy slightly different.
One of the most effective channels for me has been in creating and maintaining an academic social media presence, specifically on Twitter. I love academic Twitter for a whole host of reasons (which could probably fill an entirely separate blog post), but it is also one of the main ways that I have recruited participants to my research in the past.
Studies have found that social media can be an effective vehicle for recruitment to online research, both if you’re looking to recruit a varied sample of participants1 or engage more specialised, hard-to-reach, populations (where requesting retweets of a study URL within established Twitter communities relevant to the population you’re interested in has been shown to create an effect similar to traditional snowball sampling techniques).2 One word of warning, though: Some studies have suggested that samples recruited through social media are more likely to be female and to have a higher socioeconomic status,3 so you need to bear this in mind.
I’m going to talk predominantly about Twitter here, because that’s what I’ve used the most, mainly because the way it works allows you access to anybody, theoretically, whereas your reach on Facebook is, in the main, limited to your friends. One of the key things about using Twitter for participant recruitment is to have a lot of followers – but you’re not going to be able to create that overnight, and you’re also not going to be able to create that if you only ever tweet calls for participants.
I first heard about using Twitter as a vehicle for participant recruitment when I was a 2nd year undergraduate in 2014 and I was trying to recruit for a sexual fluidity study I was conducting. I set my account up at that point, but had very few followers and consequently it wasn’t much use for recruitment straight away. Over time I started to get more followers – I think I’ll write a separate post about the ins and outs of this, but I’m certain a quick Google would give you more information on how to do this if you’re unsure. In short, the easiest way to get more followers is to a) Follow other people; and b) Post varied content that is going to be interesting to the kind of follower base you’re trying to build – so that means more than just calls for participants. However, this doesn’t mean that everything needs to be high-brow discussion of research papers:
I digress. So anyway, if you have Twitter and you have a decent following, you’re onto a winner. If you don’t, both of those things can be rectified with a bit of time and engagement. Assuming you do have both those things, you can increase the reach of your posts by adding images and relevant hashtags (which have been found to increase how frequently a post is shared by 35% and 16% respectively).4 There are also certain times of the day and week that are thought to be optimal for user engagement,5 although I’m less sure about whether that had much of an effect in my case.
So, to sum up – Twitter can be a raging dumpster fire of unpleasantness, but if you know where to look (and get good at blocking those who ruin the vibe for everyone) then it can actually be a fantastic resource for academics to network and recruit research participants. It can take a while to get your head around if you’re not used to it, but I’d very much encourage you to create an account and give it a go!
This post is the first in a planned series about recruitment methods – I’ll post the links to the others as they become available.