So, Time Magazine decides that its person of the year is ‘us’, that the big story is about ‘community and collaboration on a scale never seen before’. Funny that, because most qualitative researchers could have written this story any time over the last ten years — if not before.

The challenge for the qualitative community, however, has been to find the people who matter; not just those who are buzzing with ideas, but those who value their privacy, who might not appear on any Census, who might be part of an increasingly niche group.

We’re talking creative recruitment here, in all its many manifestations. A trawl of a random collection of field and recruitment database companies reveals a broad spread of client (and researcher) demands when it comes to respondents, some old and some new.

As might be expected, the internet is driving many projects. Field Initiatives’s Liz Sykes says: “Researchers all seem to have the same idea at the same time. So everyone will want people to do diaries, then camera tasks — and now the current vogue seems to be blogging and podcasting.”

Another version of this, according to Gareth Roberts at Safari Research, is the ‘digital salon’. “This is where we get people to say that they would take part in a chat room scenario,” he says. “They’d agree to go online at least twice a day (once in the morning and once a night), and we’d send them links to find out what sort of sites they would visit.”

Focus groups thrive

The one thing that all those interviewed agreed on, however, is that — despite new methodologies — focus groups still thrive. There may be a lot more depths, accompanied visits, panels and workshops, but groups still hold sway. Jon Swingler of Interiority talks of it as a ‘testing ground for the creative stuff’. Gareth claims 90% of his business concerns focus groups.

These may not be the focus groups of old, but in this industry the wheel also tends to go full circle. New methodologies are thriving, but there are some clients who — having commissioned accompanied shops, getting consumers to film themselves — then decide that a whole week spent editing respondents’ films is not the most constructive use of their time and revert back to group discussions.

Yet there are other trends, too. While some companies are asking for smaller groups to be recruited — between four and six people at a time, instead of up to nine — to keep costs down, there are those who want to sign up a whole family at a time for groups. The latter has proved useful if members are involved simultaneously, and they get good incentives.

New recruitment avenues

So where are such respondents to be found, and can traditional recruiters cope with such demands? Rite Angle’s Sam Murray-Petersen believes it is a matter of using all available avenues to track down the right people. “We use anything,” she says, “from community centres, the internet and local charities, that will get us those we need.”

For instance, she cites a recent project involving people suffering from a certain illness. She found a related site on the Net, advertised on it, and recruited people by going along to local community groups. “We still use traditional screening to ensure that they fit, but the middle man who finds respondents might not be the recruiter we used to use — sometimes because they don’t have the means to find those who are hard to reach,” she says.

It’s not just the recruiter’s role that can be redundant. One project saw respondents — all from a disadvantaged group — trained in every part of the research process. The idea was that they could then be given the option to take different roles in the research, even taking part in the final presentation.

Time (or lack of it) is another issue that impacts on recruitment. A company that is looking for high end respondents for such research projects as creative workshops, idea generation sessions, NPD work or online might opt to go straight to agencies like Interiority or Saros, say, whose database have already been sourced and vetted.

Yet it is not what a respondent is being asked to do that is the real issue, says Saros’s Maya Middlemiss, more locating and engaging with that individual in the first place. “That is where the challenge lies,” she says. “If someone is genuinely fresh to research, they’re just as interested in doing a two-hour focus group than in doing something more newfangled from a research point of view (because they don’t know that it is).”

“It is a case of getting a very clear idea of what the client wants,” she adds, “and then going out and finding them. In terms of selling it to the participants, topic is more of an issue than methodology.”

Impact of shorter lead-ins

The shorter lead-in times can have different effects on the recruitment process — and on respondents. “There is a feeling that they are more distant from the process than when they used to come in from one area on a bus,” says The Bridge’s Sue Edwards. “Then, they were more relaxed, they would discuss what was going to happen. Now men, particularly, are quite quiet. It’s fine, but a little different.”

Maybe clients just don’t know what they want. In days of yore, Gareth recalls getting calls from them worried that: “These two women seem very chatty.” His response would be: “What do you expect, given that they’ve been stuck in a cab with each other for 40 minutes.” Now, like Liz, he sees a move towards smaller groups who know each other “because they’d be happier, friendlier, chattier and more prepared to talk if there are other people they know.”

Other elements, such as pre-tasking — required as standard by some companies — can also impact on timing. If a client wants respondents in a fortnight, yet needs a week of pre-tasking done beforehand, there must be a recognition that this effectively cuts seven days out of the schedule.

Keeping up with technology

Such demands mean, in addition, that recruiters, who used to have the barest nodding acquaintance with technology, are required to be au fait with current software and hardware. “We expect respondents to be in the new age as far as technology goes,” says Sue Edwards, “and for them to own and be able to use mobile phones and digital cameras so that when diaries are involved they can upload images to an FTP site that we give them a password to.”

As to the types of respondents who are keen to participate in qualitative research, they tend to reflect the multi-culturalism of the UK more than ever. As Jon Swingler points out: “A large number of foreign nationals are signing up to take part. I’m not talking illegal immigrants, but those taking part in creative disciplines. And the problem with that is the language barrier: for work purposes they might have extremely good English, but in a focus group with bad mikes and cameras…Still, now there is an incredible mix and clients like it, particularly as different brands are becoming more Euro centric.”

There appear to be relatively few worries about respondents gaining research ‘fatigue’ or becoming unwilling to take part in extra tasks related to research. As long as they are interested in the topic, and not saddled with diaries at the last moment, they will sign up. The problem can lie in keeping interest levels high. How, for interest, do you get someone keen to talk about wallpaper adhesive for two hours? Answer: tell respondents a little white lie, and say they’ll be spending the time discussing general DIY topics.

Recruiting can be a thankless task — for instance, the client only thinks deeply about it when it goes wrong. It is, after all, only a process. It has moved on, however, from those who pulled in friends and family to fill quotas. And the value of recruiters? They’ll always be in demand for their local knowledge — but nowadays they’ll have to flex that knowledge in a multitude of different ways.