Recruitment, in a nutshell, is the act of finding real people who fit an abstract specification. As researchers, when we decide who the research participants should be, we know that who we exclude will be as important as who we include. The objectives of the project at hand will often suggest who we want to talk to. But what about the wider context and the fact that real people are never straightforward?

It’s human nature to put our best face forward when asked questions about our selves and lifestyles. Behaviour is often a more accurate guide than asking people to identify with attitudes — 90% of drivers think they are better than average. By asking them how many accidents they’ve had, you can be the judge. The word ‘participants’ is used deliberately, although the more common word is ‘respondent’. ‘Participant’ conveys a more active, empowered role in the research process — if people feel that their opinion matters, they are more inclined to give their time for research.

Broken down into its nuts and bolts, the recruitment process follows a series of familiar steps:

  • Agree sample specification (who we want to talk to) — recommended by the researcher, in discussion with the client.

  • Create recruitment brief — this details the sample specification, together with timings, and any suggestions for recruitment. It really helps recruiters to have a short synopsis of the project — if they know why you want to talk to degree educated women with an interest in politics, they’ll appreciate why they need to be reading Newsweek, not The Sun.

  • Create recruitment questionnaire (‘screener’) — this key document needs to turn the requirements specified in the recruitment brief to practical questions that ensure the participants match the criteria.

  • Participant profiles — once recruitment is complete the agency will send a list of the participants and their specific criteria.

Speaking to the right people is clearly paramount, but as much as the demands of the research, we need to understand the task we’re demanding of recruiters. Unless the audience really is niche, it’s best to avoid being too specific, otherwise you end up looking for proverbial needles in haystacks. After all, how many people do you know who are aged between 25 and 35, drive a Vauxhall Astra, have a tertiary level education, don’t reject advertising AND are available next Tuesday evening?

Getting started

So, who are you going to call? And where will you go for help? Some companies have in-house recruitment teams, but it is more common to outsource recruitment to specialist agencies, who in turn have a network of recruiters. There are two main types of recruitment agencies: traditional and database.

1. Traditional recruitment

Traditional recruitment originates from quantitative research: for quantitative interviewers in the 1960s standing on street corners, it was an easy crossover to administer qualitative recruitment questionnaires. The industry has flourished, with recruiters encouraged, in effect, to start their own database. Nowadays it’s rare to find recruiters on street corners — networking tends to take place over the phone.

This method relies heavily on the individual recruiters. There’s no up-to-date information on how many there are, but recruiters across the UK co-ordinate with traditional agencies, so they are good for specific or rural locations. If you have a special request — high earning participants, for instance — traditional agencies may be the only way you will find these people.

The danger is that participants can be too local — one person can only have so many contacts! The recruitment agency needs to ensure that within one study — and even one group — there are participants from more than one recruiter or the sample may be too representative of the individual recruiter.

The disadvantage is that the researcher is divorced from the recruiter. Debate rages in the industry about how to ensure the quality of traditional recruitment, with horror stories circulating of recruiters ‘shoehorning’ participants into criteria. The temptation to use friends or participants who’ve been to research too many times, especially when people drop out at the last minute, must be hard to avoid. In practice, researchers get to know and trust good recruiters, but it’s simply not possible to do this in every town and country.

Some agencies offer a system of back-checking participants. Good communication and a sensible specification reduce the likelihood of recruiters being unable to find people who fit the original criteria.

2. Database recruitment

Although database recruitment in the UK is a new phenomenon — currently there are only a few companies who offer it — it is growing. The largest company now has over 77,000 potential participants.

The main advantage is that participants have bought into the research process. When a project comes up the computer scans the details of those who have agreed in principle to take part, selects those who fit the specification and sends invitations for further screening.

With a large database, it is possible to recruit a broad and diverse range of people. This method is also fast: the invitation and screening questions are carried out electronically and participants can log on in their own time. A booker then calls to confirm the interview, double-check all of the details given via the website and ask any questions that require judgement (for example, how articulate is the participant?)

The database is centrally maintained and updated. Database agencies, like individual recruiters, keep notes on participants who are particularly valuable. They can blacklist anyone who has intentionally given the wrong information, ‘groupies’ who want to attend interviews on a regular basis. Most groupies are naïve — they don’t realise that there is a limit to useful attendance and ask ‘to help’ with difficult quotas. Others are savvy, but this gives them away: normal members of the public do not use words like ‘incentive’ or refer to ‘samples’ or ‘screening’.

The limitations of database recruitment in the UK result from lack of coverage of the population. Database agencies can, with forward planning, recruit from new geographies, but they are not currently suited to small rural locations. The best coverage is in London, and major cities. Database members also tend to be more mainstream, and younger (due to the need to use the internet).

Data protection for participants

This conforms to Data protection law, while Market Research Society guidelines enshrine further obligations for researchers and clients. Participants have the right to refuse to allow their details to be passed on or to be re-contacted, so all databases have to obtain permission to store their details.

Lists of participants’ details now have surnames and telephone numbers routinely removed before being passed on to clients, who must be made aware that they have access only to questionnaire answers they need to know in order to contextualise an individual’s response, and that these details cannot be passed on to anyone else.

The popularity of ethnographic research presents new challenges for recruitment — the illustrative use of video and photography requires participants to be open to their visual material being used in commercial organisations. A positive, honest relationship between researchers and participants, mediated by recruiters, is essential to ensure people are willing and comfortable to take part in today’s research.

It’s a people process

Recruitment, whichever route you choose, is a people-oriented process and communication is essential. The recruitment process can be the first piece of learning, a clue to attitudes researchers uncover in their interviews. Regular updates to flag any potential problems before it’s too late are paramount. Something that’s proving difficult to find may be able to be tweaked without affecting the research itself. By working closely together and promoting transparency via honest, timely feedback, researchers, clients and recruiters can all ensure it’s as smooth a process as possible.

This article was jointly authored by Chloe Salmon and Tanya Savage