Recruiting ideal participants for research studies is a common problem among all researchers. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever met a director, manager, or coordinator that is completing all of their research on time with no recruitment struggles.

By its nature, recruitment is never going to be easy. Finding persons that meet your qualification criteria is only half the battle—you still have to convince them to enroll and participate. People are complex, and working with people is never easy!

With this in mind, we need to remember that there is no magic wand for research study recruitment. Nor will there ever be. Some studies will always be more difficult to recruit for than others, but the key is to make sure you’re following the proven best practices when recruiting for research studies.

Since recruitment is all that we do, we’ve been able to not only identify what these best practices are, but also why they’re important. Understanding why they’re important is vital, as it makes it easier for you to adapt to the unique attributes of your studies.

Let’s walk through these best practices for research study recruitment!

Generate Awareness for Your Research Study

Your ideal participants—or target audience as I like to call them—need to know about you before you ever invite them to apply.

You’ll always be tempted to immediately invite all prospects to apply; that temptation never goes away. However, most of the time, this approach is only going to scare them off.

Think about it: if you walked past an electronics store, and a salesperson immediately said, “Buy this television now!” what would you do? You’d keep walking, of course!

When you get the attention of a prospect, and immediately transition from zero awareness to “apply now” or “enroll now,” you’re doing the same thing. You’ve given them no reason to proceed. Even if people do respond, they likely responded out of pressure and not because they feel that they’re a great fit for your research study.

The solution to this is generating awareness for your research study. Here’s what this entails:

Who You Are

Are you a university? Government agency? Who exactly are you?

Clearly sharing who you are is a crucial first step of generating awareness for your research study. As you’ll see in a moment, we want to build trust, and people don’t trust people/entities they don’t know.

If you have partnerships that you can leverage, then clearly indicate those as well. This is not the time to be shy—name dropping is a good thing in this instance! Leverage everything you can to build proof and trust.

More important than any entity, though, are the people that comprise it.

Who, exactly, is performing your research? Who, precisely, will applicants be speaking with when they are screened? Who will be your participants’ contact during the research?

These people are a great asset of yours. But have you ever thought about how important they are to your potential applicants?

In addition to promoting your entity, promote your team. Feature their friendly faces on recruitment materials. Showcase interviews with them that allow them to share why they love their research and to share success stories. Not only promote them, but make it clear who they are and what they do.

Here’s an example of why this is important.

Let’s suppose that you’re recruiting for a substance use study. You’re in need of persons with existing SUDs.

Not just anyone is going to pick up the phone or send an email and instantly talk about their substance use. This is a very personal issue that they may not have ever shared with anyone, so you must make them feel at ease and comfortable. Your staff is a stranger to this applicant, so this is even more important.

By showcasing your team and their passions, you’re helping to put the prospective participant at ease. They can now see the smiling face that they’ll be speaking with and sharing sensitive information with. They can learn about how they do this every day, and why your team should be trusted.

This approach allows you to personalize your research and the recruitment process.

What You’re Researching

People are, by nature, very curious. The majority of your prospective participants are going to be curious about what exactly you’re researching. And as I mentioned before, the unknown is a major deterrent to enrollment.

Therefore, be open and upfront about what you’re researching. I’m not suggesting that you divulge sensitive information, but I am suggesting that you be clear about what your research consists of.

What are you hoping to learn?

What are you hoping to prove or disprove?

Be forthright with these goals. If prospects can relate to or connect with your aspirations, then guess what—your aspirations become their aspirations, and suddenly they have a connection to your research! Recruiting them just got infinitely easier.

Why You’re Researching

Beyond what you’re researching, why are you performing this research?

When you share the answers to these questions, you’re going to tell the story of your research study. You go beyond the “what,” and truly connect with your best applicants on an emotional level.

You go from “we’re recruiting former smokers” to “we’re recruiting former smokers so that we can learn how you quit, and how we can help others quit.”

“Why?” is a very powerful question. Anticipate that your best participants will want to know the answer to this question, and proactively share your “why” with them.

By improving awareness of your research studies, and all related components and factors, you’re positioning your studies to appeal to your ideal prospects, while making it easier to recruit them later.


Build Trust

In commerce, no one buys from a company they don’t trust. It’s no surprise that Amazon is one of the world’s most trusted companies.

The same is true among researchers seeking to recruit participants for their studies. No one is going to apply to or enroll in a research study unless they trust the entity and its people. When you consider the fact that many screenings require the prospect to divulge sensitive information, possibly information that they’ve never shared with anyone before, trust becomes paramount. Even if you aren’t collecting personal information, just remember that many people by nature are a bit leery about trusting others.

Therefore, it is crucial that once your target audience becomes aware of your research, you earn their trust before recruiting them for enrollment.

Many of the action items within the “awareness” section build trust, so be sure to follow those items carefully. Here are a few more:

  • Leverage your university/agency name and logo. If it is widely known and recognized, then use that to your advantage.
  • Leverage the name(s) and logo(s) of your partnerships.
  • Display the names, titles, and even faces of your research staff.
  • Share results and findings from prior research.
  • Embed and link to press coverage.

The single best way to build trust, though, is to feature and showcase current/past participants in your research (ideally the study you’re recruiting for). Show their photo if you can (video is even better!), along with a testimonial.

Please know that I’m aware that this will not be an easy task. The IRB approval process alone can be daunting. But it can be done, and it will be more than worth the effort.

Ultimately, upon reflection, you’ll notice that the trust-building action items I’ve listed are symmetrical to the actions you take when purchasing a product or service. You look for “social proof” and for logos/names you know and trust. You seek to learn about the people, so that you know who you’re working with. You read reviews.

The activities that build trust are simple to understand, but they do require lots of time and resources to be implemented properly. If you start to wonder if it is worth it, then just remind yourself of what you did the last time you saw a product on Amazon with no reviews or a poor description… I’m guessing you didn’t buy it.


Set Expectations

Few people are immune to having some sort of medical-related fear. Trepidations of needles, tests, MRIs, etc. are common. Just visiting a medical office or setting of any kind can be daunting to many.

Further, consider that all humans have vividly pessimistic imaginations. We’re excellent at imagining worst-case scenarios instead of likely scenarios.

When we’re preparing for or anticipating something like a doctor’s visit, something that we haven’t experienced before and know little or nothing about, we almost always jump to conclusions and envision a terrible scenario. This scenario is almost always much worse than what reality ends up being.

Let’s apply these factors to your research study recruitment: there is a very good chance that your prospective applicants will imagine a terrifying scenario or procedure that they’ll have to endure should they enroll. If they fall victim to this, then they’re unlikely to proceed further and learn more about the study. They’ll just abandon the process altogether and remove your study from their mind.

For all of these reasons, it is crucial that you clearly communicate what prospects’ expectations should be. Be open and upfront about any procedures that will be performed, and discuss them in an appropriate context. Yes, some prospects will get spooked and give up on your study. That’s okay—your study isn’t going to appeal to everyone, and this keeps you from having to spend time and resources on a prospect that ultimately is highly likely to drop out.

On the flip side, though, this keeps prospects from losing interest that may be willing to participate if they knew the actual circumstances. Be clear about what your research will and will not involve, preventing prospects from disqualifying themselves from fear of what the research may consist of. Make certain that prospects focus on reality, not their imaginations!


Clearly Communicate Qualification Criteria

Throughout your recruitment content, be clear about who does and does not qualify for your study. This achieves two excellent objectives:

It reduces low quality applications.

The last thing you want to do is waste your staff’s precious time on applicants that aren’t going to qualify.

Oftentimes I see program directors omit qualification details from their recruitment materials. Their initial goal seems to be just applicants instead of qualified applicants. I understand this mentality; you want to attract as many applicants as possible. However, there will come a tipping point at which you’ll realize you’re spinning your wheels, losing countless hours on applicants that are not right for your study.

It makes your study more appealing to persons that are interested.

Qualified applicants are great, but do you know what are even better? Qualified applicants that are interested and motivated!

When applicants know in advance who you’re looking for, and they know that they’re at least a partial match, their excitement and enthusiasm increase. Excited and enthusiastic applicants are the best applicants.

By clearly articulating your qualifications, you’ll enjoy a manageable number of qualified applicants.


Make it Easy to Apply

Earlier, I mentioned how Amazon is a great example of an entity that earns the trust of its customers. Here’s something else that you can learn from Amazon: think about how easy they make it to engage with them.

Amazon has made it incredibly easy—almost criminally so—to complete a purchase.

You need to make it just as easy for prospective applicants to apply to your study.

Here are the most common mistakes we see groups make when recruiting for research studies:

Lengthy Application Form
Lengthy forms scare away prospects. No one wants to spend time completing a form. Our research shows that the more fields a form has, the lower its completion rate will be—no matter how short the questions are. Also, remember that a large majority of your prospects will be on mobile devices, and no one enjoys typing on a small screen.

Show them the most minimal, most crucial qualifying questions for the initial application. You can collect more information later once they’ve engaged with you.

Non-Essential Questions
Yes, you need to ask a lot of questions to qualify someone. But referring to the first point above, your initial application needs to only ask the 2-5 absolute most crucial questions. Think about it… Would you want to complete a 20-question form?

Most of our recruitment efforts see over 90% of all prospects learning about your study on a smartphone. Therefore, design your recruitment materials and form with a mobile-first mindset; mobile-friendly isn’t enough.

This includes your form; be sure the form fields are easy to interact with on a small screen.

User Experience
Earlier I referenced how easy Amazon makes it to give them money. This is the same mentality you need to employ when working to recruit applicants: make it almost impossible to not complete the form. Pay attention to the appearance of your form and how prospects will interact with it. Make it not only simple but almost a joy to use. With daily experiences with companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, etc., people expect seamless, smooth experiences. Any disruption to this can negatively affect conversion rates.

Set Expectations
When prospects submit your application, clearly explain what happens next. Will you be calling or emailing them? When will this happen? Who will be doing it? The absolute worst thing you can do is have someone apply and then give them no indication of what happens next, and leave them waiting for the unknown. As mentioned earlier, when people set their own expectations, the odds of them matching reality are slim to none. Don’t disappoint them!


Applicant Management

Let’s pick up right where we left off with the last point: Simply put, you need a process in place that allows you to quickly connect with applicants—ideally within minutes! We know from experience that the longer you wait to connect with an applicant, the less likely you are to ever get them on the phone.

We understand that not everyone has the staff or ability to constantly correspond with applicants, but whatever your “best” is, make sure you implement it! This is why setting expectations is so important, so that even if you are unable to call them right away, at least the prospect knows what to expect. If you fail to set expectations, or you promise a prompt call and are unable to do so, then the prospect is going to think you forgot about them or that you don’t care about them. In all cases, this ends poorly for you as they typically feel angry and/or under-appreciated.



Digital recruitment for research studies has been proven to be incredibly effective, even for reaching highly complex audiences. However, like anything else, there are good and bad practices.

With research study recruitment, there is little room for error. Shrinking recruitment budgets require that researchers get recruitment right the first time, or else you may never reach your target enrollment, or worse, you may never be able to complete the study.

Fortunately, you don’t have to figure out what works. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel for each study. Follow the best practices outlined here, and you’ll be well on your way to consistent and streamlined recruitment!

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