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BlogRecruiting

October 2, 2019

Research Recruiting: How to Use Marketing Strategies to Find Participants

We’ll share how we recruit participants through Facebook advertising and notifications to our existing panel, plus screener survey tips.

Greg James

If you engage in research recruiting to find participants for your studies, it’s likely you aren’t fully using technology to your advantage. It’s also possible you’re making simple mistakes on your screening surveys that could cost you qualified candidates.

This has been our experience with many of the research teams who use our platform to find quality participants. User Interviews handles recruiting and screening candidates to participate in research studies, and we recognize that oversights like these make it harder to find the best people in a process that’s already challenging enough: 

  • You’ve probably noticed it’s difficult to find participants for niche studies. The more granular the study gets, the fewer the candidates who qualify.
  • Poor quality candidates abound: You’ll encounter no-shows, frustratingly inarticulate individuals, and “professional interviewers” (people who lie about themselves in order to get paid to get into a study).
  • You’ll spend a lot of time searching and screening. As we’ve honed our own processes, we’ve been able to lower our average time to find your first study participant from 7 hours to 3.5 hours.
  • It’s tough to start from scratch if you don’t have an existing database from which to draw potential participants.

Today, our most constant source of candidates is through the database we’ve built over the years. But to get there, and to find more participants when needed for niche studies, we’ve found success through the creative use of a very popular online marketing tool: Facebook ads. We’ve taken common social media performance marketing practices and applied them to research recruiting. Once you understand the most effective ways to craft online ads, you can immediately begin putting this to use to fill your user interview slots.  

We’ve also had the opportunity to see how various researchers have structured their screener surveys and formulated questions. As a result, we’ve seen a lot of great screen surveys… and plenty of bad ones. It’s given us insight on how to craft screener surveys that deliver the right kind of study participants.  

Our strategies have helped us fill countless studies efficiently and quickly. Before we look at those in detail, we’ll begin with the first — and most critical — step to take in the research recruiting process.

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.

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Before All Else, Sharply Define Your Target

What do you really want to learn, and who can best help you learn it?

Let’s begin with an example. Say you’re on a research team that undertakes a study evaluating the views of nurses working in eldercare. What you’re really hoping to get are nurses who travel to and administer care to homebound seniors. But if you failed to mention that in the screener, you’d end up with a large pool of candidates who work in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.

According to the screener, they fit all your criteria; but in reality, you end up wasting your time by recruiting and then rejecting nurses who work in the wrong locations.

In another scenario, let’s say a researcher is recruiting for a study on the attitudes of “average American” consumers. When the results are in, they reject a majority of the candidates identified because they live in large urban centers along the East and West coast. What went wrong?

They neglected to specify that their real goal was to gather a sampling of people across what they consider to be “the heartland” in smaller or mid-sized communities. If they had clarified that goal earlier in the process and added that information to the screener, they could have filled their interview slots far more quickly.

Assumptions matter. While this may seem obvious, if you haven’t precisely defined everything you’re looking for — or not looking for — it will be harder to fill your study. Could you be unnecessarily eliminating your best respondents based on assumptions about their suitability due to educational level, employment status, or some other factor? 

Whether you source your own participants or delegate the task to someone else, you need to make these kinds of nuances and distinctions clear.  

Go Beyond Demographics

There is nothing wrong with screening a candidate pool by common demographic filters, such as gender, race, geography, or income. In our experience, though, this isn’t enough. It’s easy to lean too heavily on demographics, even in broader, exploratory market research and focus groups.

Instead, focus on the core behaviors and characteristics of the people who are your target customers or users. This is true whether you are doing quantitative or qualitative research.

For example,  “Midwestern women” isn’t as focused as “Mothers in Chicago who cook.” Likewise, “Millennials in Los Angeles who listen to Spotify” is more useful than “young adults in the United States.”

Here’s what that might look like if you were to translate behavioral details into Facebook ad targeting:

Research recruiting is far easier when you have well-defined behaviors and characteristics for your target participants.

If you also have unique needs, such as a certain mix of participants, make sure you take that account into account while planning. If you were using User Interviews to fill your interview slots, for example, it could be as simple including in your request that you want an equal number of men and women.

Targeted Online Advertising: Use It Proactively and Often

We’ve had the most success by creating ads specifically targeting the kinds of participants we are seeking and then running those ads online — particularly on Facebook.

When we’re tasked with filling a research recruiting request, we use some combination of these ads and our own pool of potential candidates, who have joined through ads, organic search, referrals, and word of mouth.  Whenever we employ new rounds of targeted advertising, it brings results.

When writing these kinds of ads, we aim for a very targeted message, getting as close to what the study needs as possible. Here’s an example of a free Craigslist post (not to be confused with their paid ads) that we’ve run:

On Facebook, we also try to accomplish this by targeting every possible criterion that Facebook allows us to target.  Examples include:

  • Age
  • Geographic location
  • Purchasing behaviors
  • Interests and hobbies.

As we input our targeting criteria, we monitor audience size based on those filters.

Obviously, Facebook and Craigslist ads cost money. There’s no point in spending that money on ads unless you can get as niche as needed in your targeting. Otherwise, you’ll get broad results with large numbers of respondents who don’t qualify for the study.

On the other hand, if you attempt to combine every criterion that Facebook allows, will it return enough results? There’s a risk that over-targeting narrows the numbers too drastically. Depending on the results you get back, you may need to adjust the filters and experiment.

Another potential obstacle: There are some criteria Facebook no longer allows you to target, such as income. That’s a lot more difficult to get around, unless you’re willing to proactively run ads to lookalike audiences (something we’ll explain in the section below).

Here are a few more things we’ve learned after years of research recruiting via ads.

Which Platforms Yield the Best Results

Over the past few years, we’ve run ads on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Craigslist. Early on, we abandoned Craigslist ads in favor of free posts. Craigslist has strict terms of use and limits how often you can post ads, so it wasn’t a reliable source of participants over time.

LinkedIn was more useful, but the cost to run ads on the platform is often over ten times more than what it costs to run similar ads on Facebook. It’s simply not your most cost-effective option.

Facebook and Instagram have been the most consistent and most economical places to find study participants, out of the four. Since Instagram is owned by Facebook, ads you create for FB can also be pushed to Instagram.

Getting the right format takes testing. We found higher response rates to video ads.


We run experiments every month to tweak our ads for optimum success. For example, we’ve run split tests on the ad creative and found that a video vs. a static photo seems to be more eye-catching.

How Long It Takes to Find Participants Using Ads

If you’re running an ad campaign to fill a survey, it often takes about a week to find enough people (depending, of course, on how many people you need). But for us, ads are a way to supplement the existing User Interviews database. If you’re starting from scratch, it could take longer.

When you’re running ads, keep an eye on how well they’re performing. Facebook makes it easy to keep spending more and more money on existing ads. But if an ad isn’t converting, it’s in your best interest to stop running it and focus on other methods. It’s best to decide what your cut-off point is ahead of time then stick to it even if you haven’t filled your study yet.

One way to improve your ad conversion rate is to look at the incentive you’ve set for the study. For studies with lower than average incentives (or studies that pay $25 or less), we do not see nearly the same traction as with ads that pay either the average or over $25. Aside from that, roughly $1 per minute of interview time is often successful for consumer studies. For occupation-based studies, in-home, or in-person studies, it often takes more than $1 per minute to attract a good participant pool.

Here are our recommendations for setting incentives based on participants’ profession/income bracket. If your initial incentive doesn’t seem to be attracting many participants, try increasing it by $10 or $15 per person, if you can. That will make a big difference in your response rate.

Also, keep in mind that really niche studies, very specific occupation studies, purchase behavior studies, studies outside of big cities, and so forth are just more difficult to recruit for. You may need to get creative in finding where they spend their time and reach out to them there.

When It Makes Sense to Use Look-Alike Audiences

If you’re having trouble targeting a specific demographic (for example, because you can’t target by income using Facebook ads), then look-alike audiences could be helpful. We primarily use them for proactive ads. When we identify a group that may be tough to recruit, we pull a list of participants from our database that meet that criteria and form a lookalike audience.

Continuing with income as an example, high income participants can be tricky to target, so we have a proactive ad using a lookalike audience to recruit those participants on an ongoing basis.

We determine which ads to run by top need. For example, we’ll always need participants in NYC and Boston and have consistent demand for small business owners.


What building a lookalike audience on Facebook looks like.


If you’re trying to use lookalike audiences for your own research, it’s more difficult. In order for that to be a viable strategy, you’ll need a source of data from which to create the lookalike audience on Facebook.

Is Your Screening Survey the Problem?

If you’re not finding qualified research participants, you may need to revisit the way you structure your survey questions. It’s possible you could be inadvertently eliminating candidates or even letting through problematic people.

Over time, and after trial and error, we’ve discovered what does and does not work and have developed best practices for writing effective screener surveys. 

Here are some of our recommendations:

  • If you notice that everyone is disqualifying themselves on the same question, look at the way it’s phrased. Can you rephrase it or maybe even remove it altogether? Is it worth disqualifying otherwise solid candidates?
  • Don’t make your questions too restrictive, and try to avoid  “yes or no” questions.  For example, “Do you eat fast food?” is not as good as a multiple choice question asking about where diners prefer to eat.  
  • You can screen for experience in a field or topic by crafting questions that gauge a person’s basic familiarity with terminology or behaviors. For example, ask online gamers about finding an “easter egg” or getting a “rez.”  
  • Don’t make your survey too long or ask the same questions in multiple different ways.  This risks the applicant dropping off in exasperation and never completing the survey.  (We’ve also seen some applicants mistakenly think this is the actual research study and then request payment.)
  • Ask “articulation” questions, which test an applicant’s ability to communicate well. If you ask them to describe something, do they give a one-word response, or do they take the time to write a sentence or two that demonstrates an ability to process and explain their experiences?
  • Your research project title, description, and even the questions themselves may reveal clues as to what the “correct” answer to your screener questions may be. For example, if you represent a fast food company, don’t ask a leading question like “Do you really love tacos?”  Instead of hinting that there may be a “right” or “wrong” response, ask questions that get a sense for a consumer’s habits or attitudes toward different fast food options and their past behavior in particular.

Final Thoughts

In our experience, targeted online advertising combined with tightly crafted screener surveys bring proven results. If these kinds of practices are brand new to you, there will be a bit of a learning curve.  

Writing a great screener is perhaps the easiest part of the process, if you take the time to define who you’re targeting, then mercilessly cut extra questions. But running ads is a bit trickier. It’s easy to make them too broad or too specific, and learning the technical aspects of Facebook ads will take time. Plus, Facebook is always changing the rules. You’ll have to keep an eye on your ad spend and really learn the ins and outs of targeting to find enough of the right people.

Alternatively, we’d be happy to source participants for you so you can focus on your actual research. We have an extensive, continually updated database of diverse candidates and have consistent success filling niche requests from researchers. Many times, you can have your first participants scheduled within the day.

Want to see what it’s like? You can create an account for free — and you only pay for completed sessions.


Greg James

Content Marketer

Greg is a freelance writer with a broad background writing for the web, print, and radio.  A former longtime radio broadcaster, he’s also still active behind the mic as a professional voice talent.

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