recruitment, research

My first study, and the dark art of recruitment

I’ve just had the go-ahead from ethics to get started on my first study, which is entitled ‘Running Commentary: a study of feelings during exercise’. Cue me wanting to run around the corridor with my jumper over my head screaming with excitement. Then I remember that there is the small matter of having to recruit 60 participants.
When I first started my PhD, I attended a seminar about how to recruit ‘hard to reach populations’. Although I hadn’t yet planned my first study, I anticipated wanting to study ‘normal’ people who either didn’t exercise or who were new to exercise, and I thought these people would probably be hard to reach. How do you motivate people who don’t exercise to come into your lab and exercise for you? How do you find them? The seminar was really useful for thinking about these questions, and for thinking about some general ‘rules’ for finding participants. These included the importance of networking, making use of existing contacts, and considering issues around ‘gatekeeping’. Also, some of the other PhD students had great suggestions for me. From this seminar, I came up with the following list of ideas, from the general to the specific, the theoretical to the practical, the brilliant to the slightly random:

General stuff
• Merely the act of advertising for ‘sedentary’ or ‘unfit’ or ‘inactive’ participants could be interpreted as some sort of implicit criticism or attack on individual choices and lifestyles
• Therefore, recruitment information will need to be couched in very positive, unjudging terms
• Could look at discourses which prevail which are positive about taking action towards fitness maybe?
• Also, need for participants to ‘buy into’ research, especially if it’s longitudinal research which will involve some sort of longer term commitment
• Previous research helpful here, to show participants how their participation can contribute to some sort of wider social benefit, as well as potentially appealing to immediate, short term benefit to themselves
• Think about retention for longitudinal stuff: even if participants stop exercising, can we still keep them engaged enough in the research for them to keep participating?
• Think about barriers to participation (many of which will necessarily be the same as barriers to exercising itself): childcare, time, convenience, finding out information about study and signing up for it and/or logging any necessary measures (study website? Online data collection etc), finding out where participants will regularly be and when and tacking on sessions to these where possible (e.g. another PhD student is interviewing participants immediately after their regular attendance at a particular site and paying for their travel expenses), make it as easy and painless as possible for participants to participate in the research

• Mothers (new mothers, toddler mothers, school age kid mothers)
• Parents (thinking of football dads etc)
• Teachers
• Gym dropouts/class dropouts
• Office workers/call centre workers/sedentary occupations
• Unemployed/jobseekers

Places/Institutions to target
• Libraries: noticeboards, leaflets
• Community centres, arts centres
• Local fairs, school fetes, freshers week
• Iron Mums, parkruns, Races for Life and similar (not necessarily participants as they may be too active, but friends and relatives attending to support?)
• Surestart centres, groups and staff
• Churches
• Pubs/takeaways
• Support groups (eg diabetes, stroke association? But need to consider participants should be healthy enough to exercise)
• Communal areas: eg coffee shops, supermarkets often have community noticeboards
• Toddler groups/breastfeeding groups/parenting groups/schools
• Job Centre Plus: they run health and wellbeing programmes and have health and wellbeing focus as part of their remit: getting to know these key staff members involved in this work could be potentially fruitful
• Local authorities: staff members as well as key members of staff involved in or with links to health and sports groups or policies
• Charities: bigger ones (BHF) and smaller ones (locally-focussed ones like Rushmoor group)
• Womens Institute?
• Big employers with health and wellbeing policies (thinking of employer I’ve heard of which runs a competition to see how many steps a day employees can accumulate), who may be willing and able to let employees have time off work to attend sessions (incentive but won’t cost us anything)
• Big employers from the perspective of corporate social responsibility, often have key member of staff responsible for this, or sustainable transport officer who may help, companies who promote bike to work schemes and similar
• Company newsletters: could provide quid pro quo, the company could promote the research to potential participants on our behalf, and gain a benefit in terms of company image by reporting the outcomes of the research, which is also a good way of disseminating research beyond academic publications
• Company intranets (a friend who is a coach for a running club says she recruits new runners to her Couch to 5K beginners programme via her work intranet and posters at her daughter’s school)
• Gyms, fitness centres, especially targeting dropouts, especially New Year effects
• Dieting clubs (Weightwatchers, Curves, Rosemary Conley)
• Snowballing: often a really good way of getting participants, either from current participants but also from contacts of contacts (thinking of the music study I did mainly due to a forwarded email from a contact)

Incentives (bearing in mind I’m self-funded)
• Incentives for companies and institutions and groups to help recruit: appeal to moral and public relations incentives
• Individual incentives: financial incentives can be useful for more deprived groups, can provide additional incentives for some people, eg. Vouchers as thank you, entry into a prize draw
• Need to cover costs involved in childcare, travel etc wherever possible
• Individual incentives: can be less tangible than monetary, for example one person expressed an interest in education ‘can you tell me how to get fit in 10 minutes a day?’, could provide some sort of education package, or a consultation with a personal instructor or a fitness assessment, or maybe providing ongoing information or motivation, for example by a free app or an exercise schedule or…
• Possible idea from Podlog 2013: use a student trainer to provide free exercise sessions (could be part of their training portfolio maybe?), would have to consider logistics as well as legal and financial implications

As it turned out, the idea for my first study came from someone I was chatting to before a circuits class at the gym (I love that I can consider my own exercise a valid part of my PhD!) I told her that I was looking to research beginner exercisers and she was really interested and told me about her beginners’ running group. I found that there are these groups all over the place, and then came up with a proposal for a study which looks at runners when they first start at the group, at the end of 8-12 weeks, and then following up online 6 months later.

This idea of targeting pre-existing groups neatly gets round the problem of having to drag participants into the psychology department, by going and studying them in the field. This also had an additional bonus of looking at emotional responses to exercise in a more natural environment, which extends a study by Rose and Parfitt (2010) which looked at exercisers on a treadmill. Although there are likely to be any number of logistical issues to deal with, I really like the idea of studying people in an environment which is closer to how people actually usually exercise.

Anyway, the search for participants is now targeting groups, which brings in the issue of gatekeepers (in this case the group leaders), and again I’ve found that existing contacts and networking is crucial. Send a complete stranger an email asking for help and you are likely to be ignored or politely rebuffed. Send a stranger an email dropping a name they already know and they are more likely to respond. I have first hand experience of this myself: I signed up to participate in a study at uni when the student dropped the name of one of my office mates into the email, whereas before then I had read her emails asking for participants and thought ‘I should probably do that’ and then promptly forgot about it.

I also asked a PhD student I know who is at the end of her PhD about participant recruitment. She had lots of good advice, especially as she is looking at exercise. She also has a very thoughtful and interesting blog post about the importance of ‘marketing’ for recruitment, which you can read here:

She had the following personal advice for me:

‘Recruiting was challenging. People are more likely to do stuff if you approach them personally, even when running group leaders are enthusiastic and promote the thing for you, but that’s not always practical. I really struggled to recruit beginners, and quite a few of them dropped out almost immediately (generally, if people are still taking part after a couple of months, they keep going).

Some people disappear, but I know that some of them are still exercising, so it’s that they don’t have time or it’s not convenient, rather than they’ve lapsed. Have plenty of email reminders and be prepared to resend links. Also bear in mind that people often only read the first line or so of an email. Anything longitudinal will have participants being ill/injured/on holiday, often temporarily. If you can avoid running it through July/August, you’ll miss a little peak of dropping out (people seem to go away then can’t get back into it, and disappear). Also people think there’s no point responding if they’ve had a bit of a slip, or worry they’ve spoiled the research – be ready to reassure them that their data is still important.

Have a promotional strategy in place and allow lots of time to network and recruit. Aim the launch for January or September – these are peak times for people starting exercise, and there’s also a mini-peak after Easter. Use social media loads. Have a back-up plan in place in case you don’t get the numbers of participants to power the thing adequately, and be prepared for a high drop-out rate or people who’ve disappeared at the 6 month point (my drop out rate is 30-40% – this seems to be standard in the literature. My beginners are higher, my already-exercisers are lower).’

Frankly, the idea of Twitter scares me slightly. Facebook is not much better. But…both could be useful communication tools for the future. I need to get my head around them. I’ll let you know how it goes 🙂


2 thoughts on “My first study, and the dark art of recruitment

  1. Thanks for the link to my blog – it’s a while since I read it, so I can reflect better on what worked. It was the personal connection thing that really helped. The health walks didn’t come to anything, partly because it was so snowy last year, and partly because the walkers tended to be from populations with low internet use. I managed to get coverage in the local paper, and had a few enquiries from that, but not a lot of participation. I had lots of participants from parkrun and from the Fetch running website, probably because people know me. Regarding the benefits for participants, I’ve had some nice comments from people taking part who said just being in the study helped motivate them – hence the need for a control group! Good luck with your recruiting.

  2. Thank you Rachel, for both your blog and your advice. It’s actually quite difficult to find decent tips on recruitment I’ve found, which is weird when it is difficult and time-consuming! I think you’re right about the personal connection. That’s interesting about the walking groups: presumably they tended to be a slightly older population? And that’s a good point about the weather, I don’t think I would have had any luck with beginner running groups with all the deluges we had this winter! Regarding participating being helpful to motivation, O’Dougherty (2010) found something very similar in her study, once participants had signed up they said they felt a sense of obligation to the researcher which helped them continue

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