Good Research Requires Good Recruiting: A “How to” Guide

Research 101


You’re running a research study, and you need to recruit participants. You could recruit from a pool of people you or your coworkers know—also called a “friends and family” recruit—or you could choose to work with a third-party professional recruiter. A recruiter is someone who specializes in finding, screening, and engaging participants for research studies. Working with a third-party recruiter has myriad benefits—for example, a recruiter gives you access to a wide pool of people, can help minimize internal biases, and significantly offsets the burden of coordinating logistics on testing days. Recruiters maintain a database of potential study participants; they establish connections with these participants in a variety of ways, such as registration on an online research platform (general consumer populations) or professional networking within specific industries (specialized populations).

When you do choose to work with a recruiter, it’s helpful to have a set of expectations that you want your chosen recruiter to meet to ensure the best-possible outcome for your team, the stakeholders, and the recruiter. This post, written in collaboration with recruiter Ellen Finn, describes the elements that make up a strong researcher-recruiter partnership and summarizes the process of getting from recruitment kickoff to successful project execution.


The core role of the recruiter is to find participants for your study who match a set of characteristics. The recruiter’s attention to detail, depth of experience, and logistics management are critical to the success of your study, and it makes sense to be as exacting in your expectations for them as you are for your own work. You are partners for this project, and the recruiter needs to be invested in your results.

Asking questions

A good partner works with you to come to a solution, asking questions and making suggestions as the project progresses. A good recruiting partner should ask questions that clarify your process and remind the research team about things they may otherwise miss; researchers can get caught up in the details of the study and may forget some standard items.

Reviewing thoroughly

The recruiter should not have to guess at your goals. Supply the recruiter with a screener as early as possible so they have time to review it, and then allocate time to discuss the project’s goals with them. Add a short study synopsis and criteria overview to the first page of the document so that the recruiter can understand the relevance of the questions that follow. Know that the screener is the most important document to the recruiter, so specifics are important—this will help the recruiter find the right candidates for your study.

Following up

A good recruiting partner is vocal about the issues which prevent them from finding the best candidates. The process may need to evolve as participants are recruited—certain screening questions may not make sense in practice, or it may be difficult to recruit a specific population. Expect your recruiter to check in every 2 to 3 business days. This gives you a chance to veto a participant if necessary and gives the recruiter ample time to find a replacement.

These are the basic expectations for any partnership with a recruiter, but there are also logistical considerations depending on your study.


A quantitative study is any kind of research from which the primary conclusions are driven by a numeric, measurable output. This usually means larger numbers of participants are required to achieve a degree of significance in the data. Because of this, you need a recruiter who specializes in quantitative study recruiting. Most recruiters come equipped with a large database of potential participants, but it is always a good idea to confirm.

Recruiter criteria for a quantitative study is largely demographic, such as:

  • Mix of gender, ethnicity/race
  • Mix of geographic locations within the United States
  • Ages 21-55

Recruiter criteria for a quantitative study should not be hyper-specific, such as:

  • Must visit the bank at least once per week
  • Must have watched a superhero movie at least once in the past 6 months
  • Must not have maintained a vegan lifestyle at any point

Quantitative recruiters use basic information to pull potential participants from a database that could contain millions of people, and these more granular characteristics are rarely available to them without asking participants directly. However, once they find people who match that very basic set of requirements, you will likely need to run each potential participant through a pre-study screener of your own. This secondary screener is typically set up and administered by the researcher, not the recruiter, and often comes immediately before the participant enters into the actual study. That way, you can ask more nuanced, specific questions to determine if they fit your recruitment requirements, and then move qualified participants straight into the research tool.


A qualitative study is any kind of research process from which the primary outcome is insight-based and geared towards understanding why people are feeling or acting in a certain way. The total number of participants for a qualitative study is typically relatively small due to the in-depth nature of the methodology; for example, if your method involves conducting 90-minute interviews with each participant, you are only going to recruit enough participants to provide the necessary level of detail—you are not looking for statistical significance. For this kind of study, you will need to work with a recruiter who can screen participants individually.

Typically, email is the first form of communication between a recruiter and a participant to gauge interest in the study. The recruiter will then follow up with a screening and a 5-10 minute phone call to either qualify or disqualify the participant.

Unlike the recruit criteria for a quantitative study, your screener for a qualitative study can include specific directives. The recruiter will use these criteria to decide if the participant qualifies for the study. You can also ask the recruiter to disqualify people based on certain criteria, such as:

  • When was the last time you visited a bank? [exclude if longer than 6 months ago]
  • How many times, if ever, have you watched a movie about superheroes? [exclude if never]
  • How would you describe your lifestyle with regard to food? [exclude if vegan]

A key in crafting a strong qualitative recruit screener is to avoid asking research questions—save that for the actual study. Keep the screener to questions that qualify or disqualify the participant.


What can you, the researcher, do to make your partnership with a recruiter really work?

Communicate early and often

As soon as you know a study is happening, get in touch with the recruiter to avoid a last-minute rush and the risk that your timeline might not work out. Provide basic details about the study (study type, sample size, location, topic) to help the recruiter give you a cost estimate and a feasibility gauge. If you have a particularly difficult or specialized population to recruit for, ask the recruiter if they have any experience recruiting that population. Some recruiters specialize in recruiting from the general population, while others specialize in certain populations (such as medical specialties or young children). You also might need a recruiter who is comfortable with and capable of locating participants from many parts of the country or the world. Ask the recruiter when they will need the final details to help keep your team’s timeline on track.

Be transparent

Treat the recruiter as if she’s another member of your team. You wouldn’t keep crucial information, dates, or scope changes from your team, and you shouldn’t with the recruiter, either. If you have a particularly difficult population to recruit for, it is imperative to ask the recruiter if they have any experience with that population before the project launches. You may want a recruiter who specializes in populations other than just the general consumer. Make sure you are working together to ensure the delivery of the results within reasonable expectations. Setting up your communication this way helps convey that you expect the same kind of transparency from the recruiter.

Confirm everything

Even when it feels redundant or obvious, if you are feeling even a little bit of ambiguity, reach out to the recruiter and confirm, confirm, confirm. Here are some things to double check as the study date gets closer:

  • The deadline for finishing recruitment
  • The desired mix of participants
  • The incentive amount and distribution responsibilities
  • Testing locations
  • Study duration
  • Key contact(s) for the recruiter and the participants during the study

You want to go into your research feeling solid on all fronts, and this is a big step in helping you get there.

After the Study

Note things you wish would have gone better and the things that went perfectly or where the recruiter exceeded your expectations, and have a post mortem to convey your thoughts to each other. Specific feedback about the recruiter’s job performance or about notably strong or weak participants is always welcome—recruiter’s keep tabs on participants who have gotten unfavorable feedback and will often keep these people off of future lists. Forge a strong working relationship with your recruiter, and you’ll develop a partnership you can rely on for all of your studies going forward.


Research Recruiting Timeline

Contributed by
Megan Campos
Job Title
Senior Experience Researcher