Respondent groupies have long been the dirty secret of our industry. What's surprising is that, though often debated, we don't see many suppliers adopting new solutions prompted by the digital era.

As a media agency we embrace new media technology: if pre-tasks can be carried out online and interviews done over webcam why wouldn't we recruit respondents the same way? This rationale prompted us to search for a new supplier who thought the same way. Here's what we discovered along the way:

1) Some recruitment agencies are cautious of digital: put off by the stories of misuse. But we think there is a right way to do it.

We encountered lots of resistance to online recruitment driven by fear of doing the wrong thing; some had stories of recruiters misusing social networking platforms with practices that were in danger of contravening MRS good practice or revealing too much information about the client.

It's very important to deal with these issues but they shouldn't be a barrier to considering other, more appropriate, ways of using online. We were surprised to find that this negative angle was the focus of attention instead of a healthy debate about how online could be used to add value. We'd love to see more field agencies using online to build their own panels, perhaps using Facebook advertising to drive response to their own hub.

Any new medium will pose challenges and opportunities in equal measure. Online is an environment where consumers share a fair amount of private information and it's clearly unethical to use this without permission. It's important for researchers to be open and state their intentions — but is this not the same good practice as in the offline environment?

We feel online, if used responsibly, offers up many opportunities. It's another channel with which to reach consumers, allows for better consumer data collection and it's more interactive. In terms of recruiting respondents, it's faster and wider reaching than a recruiter network. In some parts of the country you'd struggle to recruit respondents; online databases lessen this problem.

Research is traditionally conducted in key cities such as London, Manchester and Glasgow, partly because this is where recruiter networks exist and partly for costs and practical reasons.

If more research were conducted online, however, there'd be no reason to continually source sample from these areas. The issue of repeat respondents would be resolved, at least in the short term, while in the longer term online could deliver a more unified respondent database, thus making the issue of repeat respondents easier to manage.

2) You can find hard to reach people in a hurry

From our first foray into online recruitment we learnt that you can quickly discover project feasibility, avoiding recruitment issues further down the line.

A Manuka honey project — a premium specialist brand with antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties — prompted a few worries about accessing users. A quick phone call to our ever efficient and trustworthy supplier and 24 hours later, via an e-mail poll, we were able to reassure our client we would be able to source plenty of current users to interview.

3) Fresh respondents: what a revelation!

Online recruitment, still in its infancy, brings in a whole new pool of respondents and what a difference this makes. Respondent answers come across as more honest, unaffected by the marketing jargon that many have picked up through over exposure to research. Let's be frank, it's not unheard of for respondents to talk about positioning and target audiences, as if they too were working in a marketing agency and trying to directly answer your client's brief!

The contrast between this project and previous ones was stark. We had to allow more set-up time than normal to explain the process. Respondents, meanwhile, were more engaged and enthusiastic about the research, keen to participate fully and provide us with the depth of information that qualitative researchers crave. Incentives, of course, played a role but less so. It felt like our respondents enjoyed the experience and their pre-tasks, as a result, were much richer. Many wanted to talk to us for longer than the interview slot allowed.

4) Few agencies specialise in online recruitment

Despite the opportunities outlined we found there were few agencies specialising in online recruitment. A significant proportion of quant panels may now be online, but qualitative respondents are still predominantly sourced offline using face-to-face recruiters.

If you are encouraged by our enthusiasm for online recruitment and want to give it a try there are a couple of things to bear in mind:

5) Beware no shows

As with customer database recruitment "no shows" can be an issue. Lack of face-to-face contact with a recruiter means respondents may feel less guilty about cancelling and also, if unsure of what the process involves, less worried about missing out in the future. Over-recruitment levels, therefore, need to be higher to ensure promised sample delivery.

6) Note of caution: safety first

We also realised, in the course of our first project recruited online, that taking the recruiter out of the mix has safety implications for the moderator. Researchers should always be aware of personal safety when in the field but without a recruiter to screen respondents maybe more precautionary measures are required.

We plan to continue using traditional recruiters but are excited about the prospect that new online recruitment approaches offer. As quallies we naturally value face-to-face communication for the real world contact it provides and for certain projects this type of contact will remain an important filter. Online recruitment, though, offers a way to expand our offering and given that consumers interact increasingly via this medium it's important that we as a research community keep up.