51 places to find research participants for your study

Article by Ben Howell

Photo by Mike from Pexels

Photo by Mike from Pexels

There are many ways to find the participant pools we need, from specialized services to social media, and even (gasp!) in person. By implementing a few different techniques and sampling from different pools, we can recruit participants with much more diverse demographics and surpass minimal sample sizes to provide statistical power to our research. Some methods might be perfectly suitable for a particular study whilst others could be absurdly ludicrous.

Important: Always seek advice and permission from your institutional review board or ethics committee before recruiting participants.

Anyway, enough preamble, let's get our brainstorming juices flowing.


Participant recruitment services

Let's start with a sensible and sober approach. Participant recruitment services provide exactly what we need, as the name implies! However there are subtle differences in the features they provide (e.g. payment policies, prescreening questions and tasks, fraud detection) so be sure to know exactly what you want before jumping in.

  1. Positly
  2. Prolific
  3. CloudResearch
  4. Respondent
  5. FindParticipants

Professional network

Next up, recruit your colleagues and use your professional connections as a participant pool. Just be careful not to introduce any demand characteristics by using these methods.

  1. Students.
  2. Email lists. Are you on any email lists for particular interests, subjects or committees? Send a message calling for participants.
  3. Stick an advert in the company or university newsletter.
  4. Ask participants to refer friends, family, and colleagues.
  5. Reciprocity. Offer yourself as a participant in return for participation in your study. You can use a service like PollPool.
  6. Advertise to attendees at your next talk, conference or workshop. Pro tip: Put a call for participants on the last slide of your talk and leave it on the screen while you take questions.

Personal network

What are friends, and distant associates for, right? Demographic diversity is likely to be much greater amongst your wider personal network than your professional network. Be aware that asking someone personally introduces social pressure which reduces the capacity of the person you're asking to exercise their free will and truly participate voluntarily. Always seek appropriate ethics permission before personally asking individuals to participate!

OK, let's knock up a few cards and start handing 'em out...

  1. Hand out cards to your own friends and family.
  2. Hand out cards to the staff at the places you shop.
  3. Hand out cards to your neighbors.
  4. Sidle up to some friendly folk at the local pub and hand them a card.
  5. Hobby and meetup groups. Chess club? Knitting? Young researchers under 50? Great. Hand. Out. Cards.
  6. Got school aged kids? Hand out some cards to their teachers.
  7. Play sports? Pass out cards to your team mates, coaches, etc. Why not pass a few to the opposition while you're at it.
  8. Got kids who play sports? Their coaches and other parents can take some cards too.
  9. Advertise on your personal website.

Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing, micro tasks, micro jobs, and whatever other descriptors have pervaded the gig economy's vernacular to provide a real and/or perceived differentiation are another potentially viable source of participants. You're probably aware of Amazon's Mechanical Turk but there are others out there (e.g. Fiverr, Clickworker, ySense) however these services are aimed at consumer marketing so may not be appropriate for your particular study.

  1. Amazon Mechanical Turk
  2. University recruitment portal. Many universities around the world use Sona Systems for participant management including control of multiple submissions and naivete.
  3. ySense
  4. Clickworker
  5. Fiverr

Traditional media

Traditional media enjoys a wide demographic reach, and due to the popularity of online advertising, costs are much lower than ever before. With the number and diversity of T.V. and radio channels these days, targeting a particular subgroup could be viable. So where can we advertise?

  1. Television.
  2. Radio.
  3. Newspaper.
  4. Newsletter (local, school, university, business, council, etc).
  5. Magazine.

Forums

There are forums and newsgroups for every topic conceivable. If you're targeting a specific demographic chances are you'll find plenty of forums and groups dedicated to those people and interests. Some forums even allow you to advertise site-wide. Again, do not ask individuals directly because social pressure is unethical.

  1. Reddit. If you're looking for a specific demographic or interest group, no matter how rare, chances are you're likely to find multiple subreddits where those people hang out.
  2. r/psychology on Reddit has a monthly thread dedicated to participant recruitment called Psychological Research/Surveys Thread. With 500,000 members, there's plenty of eyes here.
  3. r/SampleSize on Reddit is an entire subreddit dedicated to participant recruitment. Just over 100,000 members so it's well worth checking out.

Social media

Almost the entire online surveyable population of the planet earth uses social media in one form or another. Give 'em a break from their fake news and celebrity gos with your highly engaging behavioral experiment.

  1. Ask your popular influential friends and colleagues to post on their social media accounts.
  2. Set up a Facebook group or join some appropriate ones.
  3. Start a discussion on Twitter.
  4. Ask a question and start a discussion on ResearchGate.
  5. Ask a question on Quora.
  6. Write a post or start a discussion on LinkedIn.
  7. Target a demographic with ads on YouTube.

Think outside the box

And now every other miscellaneous method we can think of...

  1. Put up a sign or billboard somewhere.
  2. Hire a market research firm or research panel.
  3. Advertise on Craigslist.
  4. Advertise on Gumtree.
  5. Post notices (aka bill posters) in public places.
  6. If you're targeting a particular professional demographic, look up their businesses and call or email them (again, broken record: avoid social pressure).
  7. Advertise on your company, faculty or institution website.
  8. Hand out flyers to people on the street or around campus.
  9. Hand out flyers to people on the bus, train or plane.
  10. When travelling afar, people tend to be more accommodating to the intrepid foreigner. Hand them a flyer to participate in your study.
  11. Reach out to an influential blogger, podcaster or vlogger. Ugh.

Wrapping up

As you can see, there are umpteen unconventional ways to reach out to your audience. Obviously some methods mentioned in our ultimate list will work for some studies and not others. Some techniques might only work when placing your tongue in your cheek.

Mix and match a few different methods here to increase your sample size and demographic diversity and implement your very own multiple site entry technique to avoid the ill-effects of self selection. It's worth keeping in mind the complexity involved in conducting survey research and experiments online. Online behavioral research and participant recruitment presents many advantages to the researcher, but are also susceptible to unique problems. There are many techniques to work around and eliminate these limitations.

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Ben Howell
Ben Howell
Founder, Psychstudio