Are You Talking to Representative Consumers? Repeat Participants Aren’t Representative

By Hugh Carling

The research industry needs to improve the way participant recruitment works to ensure we’re talking to authentic, representative consumers. Recent reports have begun shining a light on the problems with the traditional database recruitment process. GreenBook found that many within the research industry feel sample quality is getting worse, and that most participants don’t like participating in research.

I wanted to understand these challenges in more detail, so commissioned SketchBook Consulting to survey qualitative researchers in Research on Recruitment 2017.

Research can’t be right if the recruitment is wrong, so some of the findings in the study were reassuring:

  • 97% of researchers agree that high-quality recruitment is vital to good quality research
  • 95% agree that the number one objective of effective recruitment is to find participants that accurately fit the recruitment specifications

However, 54% had been given too many repeat participants and 52% had experienced bad fit between the sample and recruitment criteria. Researchers recounted many shocking examples of bad recruitment such as: the bald man in a shampoo group and the woman with a cushion under her jumper pretending to be pregnant.

Researchers are frustrated with the lack of transparency of traditional processes as it’s extremely difficult for them to determine whether their participants are genuinely the people they need to talk to. I’m not saying that all participant recruitment is dysfunctional and dishonest. However, there are several weaknesses in the database-led method which make it harder to find the authentic, representative consumers that researchers need.

Have You Seen Repeat Participants?

More than half of qualitative researchers in the study said they had too many repeat participants in research they’ve run in the last 12 months. And this is despite recruiters screening out people who’ve admitted they’ve done research in the last 6 months. This isn’t surprising when participants are repeatedly sourced from the same small pools.

Most traditional recruitment relies on limited databases, spreadsheets or panels of people who’ve expressed interest in participating in research. The biggest panel currently contains around 13 million members from 68 countries. Repeat participants presence on multiple databases is undetectable, because data protection rules prevent cross-referencing checks. So working to the current model, the problem cannot be monitored or regulated. If you have repeat participants in your group, you run the risk of getting conditioned responses rather than real opinions.

Professional Participants Can’t Represent The Views of Your Average Consumer

Database and panel members are targeted based on their self-reported characteristics. Our study revealed that more than half of researchers believe too many participants lie to get recruited and that some recruiters encourage participants to lie.

Professional participants’ incentive to lie is clear when you consider GreenBook’s Consumer Participation in Research revelation that participants primary motivation is 5 times more likely to be money than any other factor. It’s also easy to see that recruiters can be under considerable pressure to meet difficult, sometimes impossible, recruitment specifications from clients. I don’t believe all recruiters and participants are guilty of lying, but I do know the current system allows it.

Professional participants are seen as a problem by 58% of researchers. The issue of professional participants is not just the higher risk of lying but also the conditioning that prior experience has on subsequent behaviour. One researcher shared an experience where a participant upset the observing clients by interrupting them mid-flow asking ‘when will we be doing a personification exercise and maybe it should have been done already?’. The way repeat participants have been moderated in the past and their familiarity with the types of questions being asked can influence what they say in following groups. People who’ve done lots of research start to think like marketers and don’t represent the average consumer.

What is Effective Recruitment?

Ultimately, if recruitment is not effective the credibility and integrity of the research is based on shaky ground. Our research found that, to researchers, ‘effective recruitment’ means that the participants:

  • Accurately fit their specifications
  • Are more reliable and motivated
  • Are less likely to be repeat participants

To us the solution is simple: Behavioural Recruitment addresses these issues by using Facebook’s unparalleled data on what people have actually done, rather than what they say they’ve done. People are only invited to begin the process of recruitment if they’ve demonstrated actual behaviour, interests and demographics that match the required specifications for each project. There are 2.2 billion Facebook users around the world, in 190 countries – this greater reach means that participants are typically fresh to research, meaning researchers get the views of real consumers rather than conditioned responses.

By Hugh Carling

Hugh Carling is Co-founder of Liveminds – a global research technology company that finds fresh, genuine participants using Behavioural Recruitment, powered by Facebook.