Recruiting participants for a research study can sometimes be time-consuming and energy-draining, especially for products and organizations that do not have a pre-screened customer base or community to reach out to. In this article, I’ll share a recent experience in which we were looking for a very niche user group. We switched from traditional recruitment strategies to targeted internet recruiting and actively reaching out to potential recruits. This unusual project came with a steep learning curve. I’ll also highlight the strategies we used to tackle those challenges and our key takeaways.
Earlier this year, another researcher and I worked on a research project that truly made us scratch our heads when it came to recruiting. We were targeting a very niche group of users — small-business salon owners who serve Spanish or Portuguese-speaking clients who use a particular app for communication. We started with our normal recruitment strategies, including using multiple recruiting platforms and posting on Craigslist and related social media groups. After a week or so, we received no one matching our criteria, so we pivoted to more targeted internet recruiting, which brings us to the first point.
As we pivoted to targeted internet recruiting, we first used search engines to find businesses that fit our criteria. But that only got us so far. We furthered our search on social media, hoping to find small businesses that would place ads and promote their profile, with their contact information available. We got some early wins with that. Next, we took some time to study the profiles of these small businesses that match our recruiting criteria. Bit by bit, we were able to find out some tags or channels (or followings) these targeted profiles have in common. Through that, we uncovered a large pool of like-minded candidates. We generated a long list of potential recruits, noting their digital behaviors and why we think they’d be a good fit for our study. Then we started reaching out to them individually.
Cold messaging or cold calling is always nerve-wracking, so we did extra preparation to help boost our success rate. We know it’s all about building trust with potential participants. So we set up a professional profile to represent EchoUser on our recruits’ preferred communication tool, making ourselves less “scammy-looking.” When we messaged potential recruits, with the help of modern translation tools, we made an effort to speak in their language (Spanish or Portuguese) as we learned that many of them don’t feel as comfortable speaking in English. We made it clear that we don’t speak their language and that we’re using translation tools but we would love to understand them as much as we can. Transparency plays a key role here.
We also included a graphic that showed what we’re hoping to achieve and who we’re looking for to bring legitimacy to the opening messages.
We also set up templates and scripts for cold messages and cold calls to maintain consistency in our outreach. We used trial and error and experimented with the first batch of potential recruits to come up with a good flow. In the end, based on our learnings, we consolidated our outreach flow to the following:
We used this method of cold messaging for 2-3 weeks (a much longer recruitment process than most projects) and we continued to learn more about their objections and how to address them. For example, we started by explaining how we got their contact information and acknowledging that it was an unusual request. We also adjusted our requirements and tried to minimize and balance that with revealing more information over time. For example, we threw away the online screener and replaced it with our own screening through a combination of their digital behaviors and some initial answers they gave us through messaging. We aimed to move them forward by scheduling a video interview before we lost them in the messaging process.
Setting stricter criteria for recruitment at the beginning makes sense, but if things aren’t working, figuring out where you can be flexible is your best friend. We pivoted our recruiting strategies fairly quickly when we found no matches in the first week of normal recruitment. We adjusted our recruiting criteria as we kept learning more about our target users and their digital behaviors.
Normally, we only pay our research participants their incentive after the interview. However, in this study, we encountered one participant asking us to pay half of the incentive as a deposit, just like how they’d ask customers to pay deposits to secure a reservation in the salon business. It made sense to us so we went with it. Along with that, we switched from paying our participants through traditional reward systems like Tremendous to day-to-day cash transfer apps like Venmo or Zelle.
Not only did we switch up our recruiting strategies and incentive payment methods, but we also changed the way we conducted those 1:1 video interviews. Originally, we prepared a co-creation section within the interview so we could collaborate with participants. But our participants turned out to be a mobile-first population and there was no way they could view our shared screen and whiteboard clearly. We found a way to scrap that co-creation part and replaced it with more follow-up questions. All of these point to what we mentioned earlier — meeting our users where they are and understanding how and in what way they are most comfortable communicating.
Our team doesn’t have any fluent Spanish or Portuguese speakers, and it was not easy to conduct a study that targets non-native English speakers. At certain times during the study, with language barriers and imperfect translations, we questioned how valuable this research would be. Conducting research with non-native speakers isn’t new to us, but using translation tools so often seemed to push the limits as we could miss valuable cultural context. While we moved forward with some of the recruits and interviews with the help of live translation, we made it clear to our client that there were cultural expressions and product implications that would need further investigation before they decided to expand their product to these new markets and countries. In the end, we did receive valuable insights from our research participants, but acknowledging our limitations and pinpointing what was out of our capabilities to uncover were equally important.
Our recent experience showcased the power of adaptability and the art of meeting users where they are. Navigating the challenges of recruiting a niche group led us to pivot from conventional strategies to targeted internet recruiting. By understanding potential recruits’ digital behaviors and preferences, we not only bridged the gap but also established trust by communicating in their language.
As we charted this path, the process revealed itself to be a reflection of genuine user empathy. Our story isn't just about recruiting participants; it's a testament to the value of creating meaningful connections that bridge researchers and users. The strategies we honed along the way, from tailored messaging to flexible methodologies, can serve as guiding principles for researchers seeking to forge impactful interactions. Ultimately, this journey reinforced the notion that by embracing the fluidity of user preferences and acknowledging our limitations, we can illuminate uncharted territory and uncover insights that reshape our understanding of user-centric research.
Published on September 1, 2023