Promoting an online survey can be very time consuming and, if we are being honest, also a bit overwhelming at times. Especially if it’s not done in a targeted way!
In the first part of this blog series, I wanted to highlight how important it is to plan everything carefully before you launch your survey online (and provide some of my top tips). Nevertheless, there is a saying (also used in Greece) which could not have been more accurate, especially during the past year: “Man plans, and God laughs”.
Even if you think that your recruitment will be smooth and quick because on paper you have planned every possible detail, well, maybe you need to reconsider and be open to having a back-up plan. There are always external factors that we cannot control which may impact your recruitment in different ways (let’s be honest, no one had foreseen a pandemic coming). So, my second advice, summarising the second part of this series, would be:
Be creative, explore your recruitment strategy options, don’t just rely on one.
Part 2: To academia and beyond!
There are many ways and options to introduce and promote your survey to the world but not all of them are appropriate and relevant for every project. Ideally, although a useful first step, you shouldn’t have to contact each person individually to complete your survey. An efficient recruitment strategy should aim to create what the research world has named a ‘snowballing’ effect (a cool name indeed). Snowball sampling is a nonprobability sampling technique where existing participants recruit future participants from among their acquaintances. Put in simple -and literal- words, once you have the ball rolling, it should be able to pick up more “snow” along the way becoming larger and larger (like your sample size), without your extra support.
Besides these organic recruitment strategies, however, during the last few years online promotion of project recruitment in social sciences has started to enter the marketing world, using alternative strategies such as paid ads on social media platforms. And, honestly, if you have the budget for it, why not? We are already applying conventional marketing strategies in our recruitment process if you think about it (engaging posters, catchy blurbs, spot-on invitation emails, attractive incentives). Why not take advantage of their other promotional ‘tricks’ as well, using them for a good purpose?
The launch of my online survey coincided with the first lockdown in March, and as expected, I was not prepared for it. I spent the first three months intensely (one could even say obsessively) exploring different options to reach and recruit more and diverse participants, while evidencing my original plans partly falling apart. I learned a lot from this experience (not hesitating to send bulk emails to people I don’t know among others), but I also realised that an effective recruitment strategy is a targeted one. Ah, and that ‘influencers’ truly have the power to influence!
Below is a list of some recruitment options and tips that I thought could be relevant to other research projects as well:
Think as if you are your own participant.
This should be the first step before you start planning how to promote your online survey and should inform all your next steps. Think about whom you are targeting. How many participants do you need for your analysis? Do they need to have any specific characteristics? What do they like? What are their interests? Who do they ‘follow’? In other words, get in your participants’ shoes. If you were eligible to take part in your own survey how could a research project reach you and convince you to take part?
(Re)connecting with your world: the word-of-mouth.
If appropriate, it is usually a safe option to start rolling the ball with your own network. First, you do not need to demonstrate continuously why your project is valuable; they will complete your survey or share your survey link with their networks just because they like and trust you. Secondly, this is a great opportunity to reconnect with long lost friends and relatives (I know I did). Lastly, some of them may even invest in your project as much as you do becoming your best assistants and actively looking for more participants. And for this I will always be grateful to my lovely aunt who went that extra mile for me and my project.
The ‘Gatekeepers’ hunt: thinking outside the box.
This was probably the most challenging and time-consuming step for me that lead to a series of unanswered emails. Networking is key, so try to build these connections as soon as possible if you want to stand out. You are probably one of the many researchers who ask the same third-sector services, online groups, and mental health advocates to promote their project. I, therefore, encourage you to draft an informative and engaging email and a short version of it to send as a ‘pm’/’dm’ and think outside the box. To start with, you could just ask people to share or retweet your recruitment call, which is a simple yet powerful action coming from a gatekeeper. I literally googled “top 100 parent influencers” and “top 100 mental health bloggers” and I contacted them all. Of course, only a handful got back to me, however, one of my most effective recruitment moments was when a mother influencer, after an interesting email chain discussing about my project, decided to write a blog about it. The day she published that blog I got almost 50 new participants! Yes, influencing is apparently a real thing.
Explore the survey exchange platforms.
The struggle of promoting your recruitment online is not recent, nor unique to us. Research students around the globe have found ways to unite their forces and support each other, exchanging survey ‘favours’. You can find a simpler version of these groups on all social media platforms (e.g., “Dissertation Survey Exchange – Share Your Research Study, Find Participants” group on Facebook), however, there are also more complex and structured platforms such as ‘Survey Circle’ and ‘Survey Swap’. Although these options are useful, they also come with their limitations. If you solely rely on these platforms, you will get a very specific sample: educated, mostly young student participants. So, unless this is your target group, think about employing other strategies as well.
Paid ads: could that be the recruitment future?
If you know me, or you attended the PGR Conference or the last Clinical Psychology seminar series of 2020, then you probably already know that I used Facebook paid ads to promote my survey for the last 3 months of my recruitment. The reason I talk (clearly) so much about it, is because it was an unexpectedly very successful decision, leading to a large (more than 1,000 participants) and diverse (in terms of education, employment and ethnicity) sample. Of course, this option did not come for free, and if I knew about it when I was planning my project, I would have used my ‘Research support grant’ (offered by the School to each PGR student) to cover part of this cost, by maybe offering a different prize draw. But still, I do not regret investing on my project this way. Promoting your survey on a social media platform via paid ads can be an effective and straightforward procedure that has the potential to reach your targeted population all around the world. If you would like to learn more about this option, I will insert a couple of references at the end of the blog.
I would be happy to discuss more in detail about any of the above – just send me an email. Also, remember that as University of Edinburgh students, we have free access to LinkedIn Learning, which has many useful resources including online marketing and social media paid ads courses.
In the meantime, be kind to the ‘Research Karma’ and take part to others’ projects!
Gilligan, Conor, Kypri, Kypros, & Bourke, Jesse. (2014). Social Networking Versus Facebook Advertising to Recruit Survey Respondents: A Quasi-Experimental Study. JMIR Research Protocols, 3(3), E48.
Iannelli, L., Giglietto, F., Rossi, L., & Zurovac, E. (2020). Facebook digital traces for survey research: Assessing the efficiency and effectiveness of a Facebook ad–based procedure for recruiting online survey respondents in niche and difficult-to-reach populations. Social Science Computer Review, 38(4), 462-476
Thornton, L., Batterham, P., Fassnacht, D., Kay-Lambkin, F., Calear, A., & Hunt, S. (2016). Recruiting for health, medical or psychosocial research using Facebook: Systematic review. Internet Interventions, 4(P1), 72-81.
Whitaker, C., Stevelink, S., & Fear, N. (2017). The use of Facebook in recruiting participants for health research purposes: a systematic review. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 19(8), e290.