Trends in Qualitative Recruiting: Complexity Takes Its Toll


Qualitative research recruiting has been on a roller-coaster ride the last three years.

Qualitative Recruiting

With COVID, in-person research went away, but business increased so suddenly everyone was looking for participants who were both qualified for the study AND had the tech skills and equipment to participate.

Companies that focused on in-person recruits and facilities struggled, and some went out of business. Online-based recruiting methods increased, which unfortunately made it easier for fraudulent participants to sneak into groups and interviews. Societal shifts toward diversity and inclusion led to efforts to recruit qualified participants from underrepresented groups.

Many of the big changes COVID brought to qualitative recruiting have persisted in the post-COVID world, according to Kathy Harsz, Vice President of Business Development at market research field services company CRC Research. I reached out to Harsz, as well as several other qualitative researchers and field suppliers, to learn the latest trends and challenges in qualitative recruiting.

To sum up what I found: Clients are increasingly looking for needles in haystacks while quality participants are becoming harder to find, timelines have shortened, and projects have become more complex and demand more from participants (as well as recruiters and researchers).

Specifically, here are the trends this article will discuss:

  • Complexity and challenges: More, and more complex, screeners; more pre-session “homework;” longer, more complex projects; less flexibility and more rigid timelines
  • Technology: Using technology to find needles in haystacks and find more diverse participants; social media recruiting methods
  • Privacy and security: Multi-faceted privacy considerations
  • Improving the research participant experience

More, and More Complex, Screeners

Efforts to find enough high-quality participants have become an uphill battle as clients increasingly narrow their focus. The narrower the focus, the lower the incidence, the longer and more complex the screener. As a result, respondents find themselves inundated with study participation requests from multiple national and global market research organizations, said Harsz. She noted that study participation requests are predominantly quantitative, but that too will burn out potential qualitative respondents. Prospective participants aren’t told whether the screener is for a quantitative or qualitative study because that information is typically only shared after they’ve qualified, not before. If they don’t qualify, they won’t know.

She has noted that participants have begun to adopt “a more discerning and cautious approach when navigating the sea of study invitation emails, calls, and texts.” She said that participants are, more than ever, motivated by:

  • Incentive relative to the time invested
  • Credibility of the market research company
  • Number of times potential participants have screened in or out (screening out multiple times leads to less willingness to engage)
  • General level of interest the respondent has in the subject

Current trends include screeners that are lengthier and more complex, which Harsz said has led to significant respondent burnout, as well as prolonged recruitment times and significantly diminished response rates. “During online screening, participants often encounter daunting, repetitive questions, leading to high drop-out rates and dampened enthusiasm at the start of fieldwork.”

Also, Harsz said, these lengthy and complex screeners often include “more personal and ‘intrusive’ questions, causing participants to feel they are asked to share sensitive information and invest too much time, resulting in significant disillusionment” if they are not selected.

One reason screeners are so long and difficult is that “quota complexities and segmentation screening are on the rise,” said Harsz. Obviously, this compounds recruitment challenges for the fieldwork company.

UX researcher Jessica Ivin pointed out that in cases where multiple sourcing methods don’t turn up enough, or any, qualified participants, that fact in itself is research data. “You’re already learning about your audience. It’s possible your audience doesn’t exist. Or there may be so few people in your target audience that there’s not enough demand1.”

The flexibility and breadth of recruiting possibilities brought by the ability to recruit nationally or even internationally has been tempered by rigid fieldwork schedules, Harsz said. If the researcher and/or client availability “falls within blocks of time that work for only one time zone, this presents a challenge when geographic quotas are in place for national studies spanning from East to West Coasts.”

Using Technology to Find Needles in Haystacks

Some companies try to get around the low-incidence problem with technology. Companies with specialized “lists” and panels focused on certain occupations or lifestyles have been around for quite a while. Companies buy lists from trade associations and use client lists as well, but these lists often have very low response rates compared to a field supplier’s own list or panel.

Startups such as NewtonX take a different approach. NewtonX uses an AI-powered algorithm that scans professional networks and other sites with publicly available professional profiles (think LinkedIn). Obviously, though, this approach is dependent on the availability of a trove of publicly available profile data. It’s not going to help you if your target is, say, women aged 20-39 who inherited their mom’s collection of Barbie dolls.

Social media recruiting techniques might help find daughters who’ve been bequeathed Barbies. In addition to using targeted ads on media websites, field suppliers have also begun advertising for participants on sites such as Facebook. Technology makes it easy to link an ad to a screener. Companies such as The Social Question target Instagram influencers who are likely to have followers in the target audience, asking the influencers to pass along information about an upcoming study.

Seeking More Diverse Participants

While clients are requesting ever-narrower screening criteria, there is also a “fresh urgency to recruit, at scale, non-traditional diversity target audiences like those who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, or Black and Hispanic populations,” said Kayte Hamilton, founder of The Social Question. Just as some recruiters focus on providing doctors or contractors, Hamilton’s company and others tackle the challenge of reaching underrepresented groups.

This is easier said than done. Recruiters who are most successful at recruiting harder-to-reach populations “develop a thorough understanding of [the group], develop partnerships to locate and access potential participants, build trust with the community, tailor their language, minimize participation risk and resource constraints, recognize the cognitive and physical demands required, and are flexible and creative in developing recruitment strategies,” according to research on surveying hard-to-reach populations2.

A quick search turned up several companies that focus on recruiting participants from groups that are hard to reach and/or out of the mainstream. I’m sure there are more, but here are a few to start:

  • P3 Technology provides access to individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities.
  • Zebra Strategies specializes in marginalized, vulnerable, and hard-to-reach populations.
  • Eastcoast Research specializes in reaching LGBTQ+ participants.

Social Media Recruiting Methods

“Social media is great for requests [for specific targets and hard-to-reach populations]. We have the power to reach out directly via DMs and hashtag searching, target with social media ads, or collaborate with an influencer in their circle to offer our research opportunities,” said Hamilton.

Using new technologies to find participants also helps because “as technology and AI capabilities change, so does the way the target audience makes decisions,” as Chris Young from InnovateMR reported in an article about Quirk’s New York 20233. “It is becoming increasingly important to go beyond recruiting from just panels to use technologies to meet people where they are—whether that is on social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, in online publications, or other organizational boards…a growing percentage of audiences are making more purchasing decisions in these platforms and working to capture in-the-moment opinions will provide far more meaningful insights.”

Finding individuals through this kind of targeted search can cut out some pre-screening. “We can view more of the individual's habits and behaviors beyond how they fit into survey boxes. It's like pre-screening them before offering them an opportunity to engage,” said Hamilton.

Multi-faceted Privacy Considerations

How well these newer recruiting methods will continue to work depends on the evolution of another key trend—privacy. “We’ve noticed more client requests for sensitive data collection during screening, including health and financial information,” said Kathy Harsz of CRC Research.

This raises two concerns. The first is getting potential participants to even divulge these kinds of details in screeners in the first place. The second is getting participants to trust that the recruiter’s cybersecurity measures will keep their information confidential.

According to Harsz, “Not all recruitment suppliers meet minimum cybersecurity standards for secure data handling. Sharing personally identifiable information (PII) with recruiters poses a significant risk if any party in the study encounters a security breach. Emphasizing the need for robust cybersecurity measures is critical in protecting sensitive information and earning respondent trust.”

Cybersecurity standards for PII have become a moving target. Privacy legislation has proliferated. Some states in the U.S. have privacy laws, but not every state, and not all of them have the same laws. The European Union has privacy legislation (GDPR) and different countries within the EU also have their own legislation. Canada has its own privacy laws.

On a side note, QRCA has been offering some robust training on data privacy, especially helpful now that the definition of personally identifiable information (PII) as it pertains to qualitative research has come into sharper focus.

These days one company might be recruiting qualitative research participants nationwide or worldwide—so regardless of the variety of legislation, the best practice is to identify the privacy legislation that is most stringent and comply with that legislation.

Improving the Research Participant Experience: Technology Gives, and Technology Excludes

Qualitative research participants used to just be required to show up at the focus group facility at the right time on the right day. This too has become more complex, and that adds opportunities for confusion. The best recruiters will also help participants pre-test network connections, download any needed apps, and learn how to use those new apps. They must also work to keep participation up throughout the project.

Harz noted that in Canada, “platforms are now legally required to offer bilingual support in both English and French Canadian. Some commonly used platforms only provide English instructions, failing to meet the needs of French-Canadian participants.”

And while familiarity with online platforms such as Zoom, Teams, and Google Meet has dramatically increased, Harsz said “there remains a participation gap for underrepresented audiences without access to tech infrastructure, such as laptop computers and high-speed internet.”

Several years ago, L&E Research conducted research with people from their own database about the experience of participating in qualitative research4. Their findings: “Marketing research is just not as important to the participants as we would like it to be. They didn’t really need much of a reason to disengage.” The biggest reason they disengage is frustration from not being included in studies. “We call, we email, we put them through a long screener or questionnaire, and some never get selected. Participants feel like researchers ask a lot and don’t give much back in return.”

Throughline: Being Ethical and Building Relationships

To counteract negative trends such as complexity and shorter timelines, good recruiters must bring a strong code of ethics and a commitment to creating a positive participant experience. The best recruiters build a relationship with participants that starts with the first recruiting touchpoint and continues through the project’s end.

Participants need to feel comfortable throughout this increasingly complex process. They need to trust that the personal information they’re asked for will be kept private, that they will be supported with any technology issues, and that they’ll receive their incentive. You can’t just send out screeners to a list, send project information to those who qualify, and then hope participants will show up prepared to deal with technology challenges.

The trend toward complexity in qualitative research and recruiting also holds opportunities, though. Of all the information I combed through putting this article together, nothing was as intriguing as this statement from Isaac Rogers, president of Sago: “You can’t make a screener or a discussion guide for every single person—but what if you could?”5

Sure, it sounds fanciful. But still, I’ve made a note of it. You never know—in a couple of years, I may be writing about this new trend of personalized qualitative research.


  1. Ivin, Jessica. Why My Students Learn to Recruit User Research Participants, Medium, Feb 26, 2019
  2. Savard I, Kilpatrick K. Tailoring research recruitment strategies to survey harder-to-reach populations: A discussion paper. J Adv Nurs. 2022 Apr;78(4):968-978. doi: 10.1111/jan.15156. Epub 2022 Jan 27. PMID: 35084799.
  3. Young, Chris. Quirk’s New York 2023 – Review & Takeaways
  4. Wyckoff, Renee. L&E’s Journey to Understanding Our Research Participants
  5. Rogers, Isaac. Sago Eye on Innovation series, Episode 1: Commitment to Relentless Innovation

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