Elizabeth Autio on Recruiting Participants for Your Study: Practical Strategies and Advice

My name is Elizabeth Autio and I am an associate at Education Northwest, a non-profit organization serving educators through research, evaluation, and technical assistance.

Lesson Learned for Recruiting Study Participants: Recruiting study participants is challenging. Success has ramifications for continued funding, buy-in and attrition. Based on my experience recruiting for a federally-funded randomized controlled trial, here are some lessons learned:

1.       Develop a system: This lays the groundwork for your recruitment activities. It includes a strategy for who you want to approach, through what mechanisms, and what resources you can leverage to do so. Materials include presentations, a website, and handouts that have a consistent look and content. A contacts and communications tracking mechanism, such as a database, will help you stay organized and report progress to your funders.

2.       Make participation attractive: Ideally, the program that you are studying is something potential participants need or want. Offer incentives that thank the participants for the time it takes to engage in study activities and are provided upon successful completion. Investigate things that will not cost additional money; for example, in our education setting, we facilitated course credit for teachers who attended study-related professional development.

3.       Don’t think like a researcher: Put yourself in the shoes of potential participants. Imagine yourself a teacher, public health worker, administrator, or service provider. What would you want to know about the study? Most likely, you would want to know practical things, such as: What will I receive? What do I have to do? Why would I want to do that? Is there any risk? How much time will it take? Does it mesh with what I am already doing?

4.       Allocate adequate time and money: Successful recruitment takes an upfront investment of time and money. We found that it took several times what we originally budgeted. When planning, think realistically about the sample size that you need, the eligible pool, their likelihood of participation, and how many potential participants you will therefore need to approach. Are you leveraging existing contacts or building new ones? Can you budget for in-person visits? Are you traveling, and, if so, how far? Can you bring participants together to a central location to hear your recruitment message, or do you have to travel to each site separately? Are there multiple levels of hierarchy that you need to work with, or just one? How will you secure participation, and who will collect and track this? These are examples of some of the questions you might ask yourself as you begin budgeting.

Rad Resource: Learn more about recruitment through downloading our Evaluation 2011 session handouts from the AEA Public eLibrary.

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

4 thoughts on “Elizabeth Autio on Recruiting Participants for Your Study: Practical Strategies and Advice”

  1. Pingback: Elizabeth Autio on Recruiting Teachers for Your Education Study · AEA365

  2. Hi Josh,

    Thanks for your comments! I agree that layperson language is important when communicating with a non-technical audience. I found that potential participants understood a lot of the concepts behind research design, but they aren’t as steeped in the lingo as we are. I also like the reality check idea.


  3. Pingback: Joshua Joseph on How to Help (Potential) Participants Say “YES” · AEA365

  4. Elizabeth, thanks for the thoughtful post and especially the parts about trying to see the study from participants’ shoes.

    Two things I’ve learned in line with your good lessons include (1) using casual language when communicating, rather than sounding too formal and researchy if participants are drawn from a general audience and (2) asking a few insiders to give input on the recruitment strategy/approach, to get a reality check on whether it’s appropriately targeted. Best Josh

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