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BlogRecruiting

How to Recruit Participants for a Study

Learn strategies for targeting the right people, screening, and incentives. Review popular recruitment channels, online tools, and more.

Matt Goolding


Whether you’re an experienced researcher or new to the game, recruiting research participants for a study remains a challenge. Why?

  • There’s a plethora of channels and methods you can use to find participants, but different channels will work better for different projects.
  • Repeatedly using the same channels and methods will result in diminishing returns (i.e. burning out participants).
  • It’s difficult to find eligible participants who meet the criteria for niche studies.
  • It’s a lengthy and complex process, but some projects don’t have the luxury of time.
  • Offering the right incentives and distributing them is a pain.
  • Even when you think you’re done recruiting study participants, you may have to find more participants after talking to unhelpful participants and time-wasters.

But there are ways to overcome these challenges.

In this article, we’ll introduce you to our best practices when recruiting participants for a study, plus strategies for targeting, screening, incentives, and more. And we’ll review popular recruitment channels, including live intercepts, social media, specialist online tools, and more.

Note: Looking for a specific audience to participate in your UX research? User Interviews offers a complete platform for finding and managing participants. Tell us who you want, and we’ll get them on your calendar. Sign up for free. You’ll only be charged for people who actually take part in your study.

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Best Practices When Recruiting Participants for a Study

We’ve broken down the process of recruiting people for research studies into four areas:

  1. Targeting: Reaching the right audience 
  2. Screening: Making sure you recruit people in a reliable and unbiased way
  3. Incentivizing: Offering incentives which encourage uptake by the right audience
  4. Sustaining: Making sure you can keep doing research for the long-term.

Let’s look at these four different areas and explore how your research team can tackle each.

1. Targeting

As we highlight in the first chapter of our User Research Field Guide, targeting should typically be defined by using a mixture of the following criteria:

  • Demographics: Age, gender, education, income, marital status, etc.
  • Geographics: Country, city, region, or radius around an area
  • Psychographics: Activities, hobbies, interests, and opinions
  • Behaviors: What they do (e.g. “regularly commutes by car”).

The first way to improve the quality and suitability of participants when recruiting for a study is to clearly define your intended participants.

If you’re doing research for a company or a product, the target audience is usually representative of your eventual — or existing — customers.

With this in mind, avoid the trap of thinking “Everybody is a potential customer” — your targeting will be too broad, and you’ll waste time rejecting participants who are a bad fit for all sorts of unforeseen reasons. 

First, zero in on the goals of your research. What do you want to find out? Then, work backwards to figure out which core audience is likely to give you those insights. Then, think beyond demographics and geographics.

“Middle-aged men in the United States” won’t cut it. Instead, think of criteria which allow you to screen human subjects for behaviors, attitudes, and characteristics. 

 Some examples of more clearly-defined (yet still broad enough) target groups are:

  • 40- to 60-year-old southern men in small towns who drive to work
  • New York parents who use childcare at home
  • Tennis players in England who are active on Instagram
  • Unemployed recent high-school graduates who live in big US cities.

And it’s equally important to define who you’re not looking for. 

For example, if you want to know which day of the week people in San Francisco drink the most wine, your recruitment efforts would be wasted on participants who are under the age of 21. It’s important to define these targets and non-targets at the outset, because it helps you create a solid screening process. 

2. Screening

Clever screening questions that don't give away the purpose of your study is an important part of how to recruit participants for a study.


Once you’ve determined the ideal target audience for your study, it’s time to create a screener survey to qualify the respondents and build a list of reliable, genuine research participants.

Avoid Tipping Your Hand

As we highlight in our support article about building a screener survey, the first piece of advice is not to give too much away.

You want to weed out the people who are trying to game the system — including “professional” research participants who only want the incentive prize.

There are three ways to achieve this:

  1. Don’t reveal the purpose of your research study.
  2. Don’t reveal the name of your company or product.
  3. Don’t ask leading questions.

For example, a leading question for a life insurance company might be a yes/no choice for:

“Do you currently have life insurance?”

A better way to ask this question without leading the respondent would be:

“Which types of insurance do you currently have?

  • Car Insurance
  • Life Insurance
  • Health Insurance
  • None of the above."

In this case, one qualifier in the online survey flow may be to select life insurance in this list (or not, if the company wants to learn about why people don’t have it). Either way, you’ll want to minimize the chance of the respondent guessing what you want to hear. Avoid clues as much as possible.

Look for Expressive People

Our second piece of advice for screening is to identify high-quality participants by asking “articulation questions.” These are more open ended and descriptive, designed to test a user’s capacity to communicate. If a person can express their ideas with depth of thought, they’re likely to be a helpful participant in your user interviews. But beware of the “one-word answerer.”

An example of an articulation question would be:

“Describe how you feel about your work commute.” 

If someone says their commute is “Fine,” they might not give helpful answers during an interview. But if they talk about how it’s uncomfortably long, or they hate how congested traffic is, or they don’t mind it because they use the time to listen to podcasts … Well, you get the idea.

Remember to Keep It Brief

Lastly, it’s important to keep screener surveys short and sweet. We’ve seen some screener surveys get so long that participants mistake them for the paid survey! If you’re looking for a rough guideline on length, try to keep your screener to less than ten questions. 

With User Interviews, you can also use skip logic to change what the respondent sees next based on what they’ve answered. This means you can push them to the end of the online survey immediately if any single answer qualifies or disqualifies them. 

You can learn more about creating a great screener survey in the second chapter of our User Research Field Guide.

3. Incentivizing

Monetary incentives will improve the response rate for your screener survey and reduce the number of no-shows after you whittle down the research participants. Incentives will also help keep participants engaged and responsive during the research study. 

But how much should you offer when recruiting participants for your study?

There are three main guiding principles for planning incentives, which we’ve also outlined in the third chapter of our User Research Field Guide:

  1. Studies done in home or in person will demand higher incentives than phone or online.
  2. Higher income earners will demand higher incentives than lower income earners.
  3. The longer the time commitment, the higher the incentive.

For example, if you’re looking to recruit high-income professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.) for an in-home or in-person research study, it’s good form to offer a minimum of $125 for a 30-minute interview. The equivalent recruitment rate for a general consumer participant would be around $60. 

For a detailed breakdown of how much to pay your research study participants for in-person and phone interviews, see our incentive calculator.

How to Handle the Payment of Incentives

We recommend researchers use popular digital payment platforms like PayPal for cash-based incentives. If you use User Interviews for recruiting participants for a study, we can instantly process incentive payments through Amazon Gift Cards. We will also automatically issue 1099s for your tax records. Or you can handle incentives independently — it’s up to you. 

It’s important to account for the overall time investment for the participant when calculating your incentive offer and to make payment promptly. And bear in mind that financial incentives aren’t enough to guarantee high-quality and happy participants — people need to have clear instructions, and they need to know you’re truly grateful for their time.

4. Sustaining

If you keep hitting the same initial audiences time and time again for different research studies, you will experience the law of diminishing returns. Repeat participants will eventually get fatigued, and your research will be based on interviewing the same people with the same views.

There are two possible ways to avoid this problem:

  1. Use a huge database of potential participant targets.
  2. Use a mixture of different recruitment strategies and channels.

In the final section of this article, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of the different channels.

Naturally, this doesn’t account for researchers who are doing a study that involves their own users. In a small company, it might be unavoidable to hit the same audience repeatedly when you’re testing product development among your most engaged current customers. 

So, how can you keep things fresh?

  • Try the RITE method (Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation) for product research. This means you only speak to tiny groups of one or two people, before iterating on designs and speaking to the next group. This approach will burn through fewer of your users.
  • Keep studies short and sweet. Get the insights you need without overburdening users. 
  • Mix up your methods to keep the structure and process of your research studies fresh.
  • Sustain long-term advocacy by thanking participants and showing them the direct results of their participation (e.g., a new feature addition). 

Which Recruitment Channel(s) Can You Use for Your Study?

When Researching Your Own Users

  • Live Intercepts: Messages can be delivered in real time within your website or app based on the user’s actions or engagement, their background account information, and/or other criteria. You can recruit at the flick of a switch, but you’ll need to contend with third-party integrations and potential complexity in managing the tool. 
  • Organic Social Media: If you’ve built an active and engaged social following from your own customer base, you can recruit people directly through these profiles. It’s free and straightforward, but some platforms (e.g., Facebook & Instagram) are choking organic reach for brands — so you might struggle to capture enough eyeballs. You can navigate this by boosting posts to an audience of your own page followers (this requires budget allocation).
  • Customer Service: Your support staff are in touch with customers every day, and these are the customers who have something to say. This makes them great candidates for qualitative user research — if you can align with the support team.

You can build your own research panel using any of these channels, and import your database into User Interviews. There, you can manage the whole research process from within one platform: profile building, scheduling, tracking responses, incentive payments, and more.

When Researching Non-Customers

  • Research Companies: Specialist market research companies (or participant recruitment agencies) are often very good at what they do, but their help comes at a high price. 
  • User Interviews: User Interviews makes it quick and easy to recruit high-quality participants for your study. We match you with people from our audience of over 200,000 (and growing) vetted participants, and you can target by specific demographics and a range of geographic, psychographic, and behavioral criteria. If your ideal users aren’t in our panel already, we have a system in place to find them ourselves. 
  • Manual Outreach: This is a highly targeted and customizable approach, but it’s time intensive to crawl through LinkedIn profiles, send out speculative messages, and follow up on conversations.
  • Paid Social Media: As we outlined in this article about using Facebook Ads to recruit for research studies, performance marketing practices can be directly applied to the research recruitment process. Defining your audience is especially important here, because ad targeting strategy will determine whether you get relevant respondents onto your screening survey. 
  • Organic Social Media: As we mentioned earlier, organic reach for posts is limited nowadays. But groups and pages are still a hive of activity, packed with people who are actively talking about shared interests, ideas, professions, hobbies, and more. The challenge is that many of these groups are closed or invite-only, so you may need the admin’s approval to recruit there.
  • Craigslist: This platform limits the amount of ads you can post, so we recommend sticking with the free posts. However, even if you find the number of participants you hoped, the quality tends to be hit and miss.

Final Thoughts

Since the quality of your participants directly impacts the outcome of your research project, it’s important to get off to a good start by specifying targets, building a bulletproof screening process, and offering incentives that match the expectations of your target audience.

If you’d like recruiting participants to be the easiest part of your job, try User Interviews. Our ever-growing participant pool and smart targeting options mean you’ll never fatigue your audience, and you’ll be able to find people with the behavioral background you need.

Find your first three participants for free on User Interviews.

Matt Goolding

Matt Goolding is a writer and content strategist, based in the Netherlands. He writes with leaders and teams in a variety of industries. You can find him on LinkedIn or via mattgoolding.com.

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