How to recruit the right research participants (almost) every time

A step-by-step approach that makes it almost impossible to recruit the wrong participants for your next research study

Caitlin Sullivan
February 28, 2024
How to recruit the right research participants (almost) every time

I had no idea there were so many customer types, and I'd found all the wrong ones.

It was a Thursday in 2016. I’d used up five user sessions and all my introvert energy, but I still hadn’t gathered any of the insight I needed. I had recruited the wrong kind of customers. Not once or twice, but for five wasted sessions. It wasn’t just a waste of my time. I was wasting company budget, and I hadn’t learned anything. My project’s ROI was horrendous. I couldn’t imagine how I’d explain this to my boss.

I’d learned an invaluable lesson that day: recruiting is a make or break step in research. Despite what I'd wanted to believe, paid recruiting platforms and $150 gift cards can’t solve a bad recruiting plan.

I promised myself never to let that happen again. From that day on, I vowed that I would find a way to recruit the right audience every time. (Or at least 95% of the time — there’s always a margin of error.)

Three big mistakes & one missed opportunity

I’d made a handful of mistakes in the previous weeks that predictably led to bad recruiting that Thursday. As an advisor, I’ve since watched many client teams make the same exact missteps. In over a decade of running research, I've seen four steps lead to recruiting best-fit audiences for valuable insight (nearly) every time:

  1. Define your target audience in a way that feeds recruiting.
  2. Write a targeted screener survey with zero fluff.
  3. Use a paid recruiting platform to find hard-to-reach targets after steps 1 and 2.
  4. Get each best-fit participant to deliver you others.

Here’s how to make sure you do each of those steps well, and turn identifying best-fit participants into a repeatable process.

1. Define your target audience in a way that feeds recruiting

There’s a big red flag in my head when someone tells me they “emailed all their users” to recruit them for research. That’s the “spray-and-pray” approach to recruiting, and it rarely works. The spray-and-pray approach is often a sign that a team doesn’t know who the audience is. It could also be a sign that they don’t know the objective of their research — but that’s a topic for another day.

If you don’t define the customer, how will you know who you should actually talk to and listen to?

Who are your target customers? We always need to answer this first, but it’s not as obvious as it sounds.

Too many teams have a hard time answering these questions:

  • Which behaviors are common among the customers getting huge value from your service?
  • Which contexts and use cases must be present for the customer to feel that you solve a really big problem for them?

If you can’t define your customer well, you’ll recruit too many poor-fit participants over time. Not all feedback is equal, and neither are all participants sharing it. To get useful input from the right people, we need to know who we’re interested in hearing from before reaching out.

Defining your audience deserves a post or five of its own. But it’s essential and foundational to identify a few descriptors that will make it simple to sort the right customers from the wrong ones.

An audience definition that works for recruiting

In my experience, the best descriptors go beyond demographics into the following:

  • Contexts: Homeowners with 1+ acre yards, employees in remote-first workplaces
  • Behaviors or activities: Meditating, eating out three times per week
  • Existing solutions: Dropbox for file storage, manually filing income taxes

I also usually prioritize descriptors in the order shown above. Contexts have a big impact on a participant’s fit and the likelihood that they actually have a relevant problem, use a competitor, and so on.

I do try to keep audience definitions simple for recruiting, especially if it’s the first time a client is doing the hard work of defining their audience.

I ask one question, followed by one fill-in-the-blank statement. Together, these two steps ensure we’re looking for the right kind of customers for the job we’re trying to do:

  1. What information do we need from our audience in order to decide [this critical decision] now?
  2. Our best-fit audience for this study is people who [1. do this activity/behavior], in/when [2. this context] and [3. use this existing solution today].

Answering the question makes sure we pinpoint the audience that can help us with the task we have at hand right now. Filling in the statement forces us to decide what specifically about an audience makes them likely to benefit from our product. 

It’s worth noting that for newer products, the customer definition and all its parts is likely a hypothesis you’ll prove or disprove when you finally recruit them.

Need examples? Here are a few:

  • Our best-fit audience for this study is people who mow [behavior/activity] their 1+ acre large lawns every week [context] and currently use a small gas-powered lawnmower [existing solution].
  • We’re looking for people who freelance [behavior/activity], live in a foreign country [context/situation], and currently pay a tax advisor to do all their taxes [existing solution].

But wait: There are no demographics here! 

I’ve intentionally left them out.

I’m not the first person to say that demographics can be misleading. Sometimes, they focus us too narrowly on characteristics that don’t matter as much as we think they do. Other times, they’re too vague to help us find the audience we really need to hear from.

What matters most for acquiring, upselling, and retaining customers is contexts, behaviors and existing solutions.

The activities they do, the places where they potentially encounter a problem, and the solution they use today (that they’d need to switch from to use your product) are the things that make them worth the research session — or not.

2. Write a targeted screener survey with zero fluff

Even when you define your audience well, turning the definition into a nice, concise screener survey isn’t always easy. But when you follow the steps I shared above, your screener survey practically writes itself.

You could of course toss what you wrote into ChatGPT and ask it to write a screener for you, but I still highly recommend writing it yourself. Writing the screener yourself ensures that you capture the essence of what you must learn from your participants in the questions, something I’ve seen ChatGPT fail at more than a few times. You’ll also continue to improve your ability to write great screeners when you don’t hand it off. 

You can use your answers above like this:

A fill-in-the-blank screener survey

  • Q1. Yes/no: Do you [do the key activity/behavior]?
  • Q2. Multiple choice: How often do you [do the key activity/behavior]?
  • Q3. Multiple choice: Where/when do you typically [experience the key context in life or work]?
  • Q4. Multiple choice: And how often does that happen? (Optional)
  • Q5. Multiple choice: Which of the following solutions are you currently using when you [do activity/behavior]?

By using, for example, a multiple-choice survey question with various activities or contexts to choose from, we can more reliably pick out the participants who have the specific conditions our product aims to solve a problem for. We might even add some proof for or against a hypothesis we had from the results of the survey. 

If the prospect doesn’t have those conditions (or isn’t aware they have it), then they probably aren’t worth recruiting.

Too often, I see product teams writing surveys that take too much time, both from their users and themselves. It doesn’t take 15 descriptors to vet an audience, unless the audience definition isn’t very clear.

3. Use a paid recruiting platform for hard-to-reach audiences but only after steps 1 and 2

There are platforms out there that offer great help to recruit participants for you. This is especially true when the target is someone hard to find or reach.

External research panels give you access to people you might otherwise not be able to reach on your own. But before you use it, you still need a plan.

I list this as the third step because I’ve seen teams succeed at recruiting when they first define their target audience, next create a screener based on the audience they’re trying to find, and only then try to do any recruiting outreach.

Expecting a paid recruiting platform to fix a bad audience definition will backfire 9.9 times out of 10. Tools and your own database can only help you find the right people when you first know what makes them “right”!

Paid recruiting platforms often let you input questions for screening. If you’ve done step two above, then setup in a recruiting tool will only take a few minutes and some copy-and-pasting.

Great Question makes it easy to recruit from Respondent’s external research panel of over three million verified B2B and B2C research participants. That way, you can recruit external candidates in the same place you build a panel of your own customers, run research studies, manage incentives, and store insights. Learn more here.

4. Get each best-fit participant to deliver you more.

Some mistakes are glaringly obvious once you’ve made them. Others, like missed opportunities, fly under the radar.

A trick of the research trade is to ask best-fit participants to connect you with people like them. It might feel cringeworthy at first, but it pays off in two ways.

When someone fits your target audience, they usually know others just like them. Your favorite participants know qualified participants you couldn’t have found on your own. Start with a simple question to the best-fit participants you have, like: "Do you know anyone else who [does this activity] like you, and might have strong opinions about this?"

I've regularly doubled my best-fit participants overnight with that question — without doubling my effort.

But there’s a second benefit to this step. Have you ever connected two friends you thought would click? Then you know you only do that if you value them both.

If a customer connects you with a similar contact, it’s a strong signal that they value your product.

If they aren’t interested in connecting you with others, maybe they aren’t that interested in you (or your business). It’s an interesting sign that they might not be your best audience at all, or that you’re not yet serving them well enough.

Final thoughts

There’s no magic formula to perfect recruiting, but this is the closest I’ve ever found. I’ve tested dozens of processes over years, and none has worked better for me.

From writing a customer definition that directly becomes a screener survey, to reaching more best-fit participants through each one I find, this process delivers the right people, and will probably save you time, too. 

Caitlin is a former Head of User Research at a Spotify-backed SaaS company with 13 years of experience running research and experiments. She loves nerding out about product-market fit and helping early-stage startups test new products before launching. For more of her tactical advice, follow her on LinkedIn, check out her new Substack, or contact her directly.

Similar posts

Try the all-in-one UX research platform