Recruiting research participants using Twitter

Andrew GloverAndrew Glover is a Research Fellow at RMIT University, based in the Digital Ethnography Research Centre and the Beyond Behaviour Change Group.

He is interested in sustainability, air travel, and remote collaboration. He tweets at @theandrewglover.


Recruitment for research participants is often time-consuming work.

Emailing people directly can be effective, but does seem intrusive at times, given the amount of email many of us deal with on a daily basis.

Sometimes, you just want to get your message out there as far and wide as possible, beyond your personal and professional networks.

If you cannot join the Army - Try & get a Recruit

British WWI Recruitment Poster, by State Records NSW on Flickr

Recently, I’ve used Twitter to recruit survey and interview participants for two projects.

The first was an online survey about academic air travel in Australia, and the second was a call for interviews with people who collaborate remotely without travelling. In both cases, I’ve been impressed by the extent to which the message was distributed across the networks of people I was hoping to reach. The air travel survey was completed by over 300 academics throughout Australia, with respondents from every broad field of research. I combined this with emailing universities and academic associations directly, asking them to pass the message on to their staff and members. For the project on remote collaboration, I had 13 people respond immediately who were willing to be interviewed, including from Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and the USA.

Using Twitter’s ‘Tweet Activity’ function – the small bar graph icon at the bottom of each tweet – I can see how many people have viewed the tweet (impressions), how many clicked on the link, and other measures of engagement. I don’t have many followers – 294, which probably includes at least a few bots. As far as I can tell, about 140 of those are actual people who regularly see most of what I tweet. But you don’t need to be a Twitter celebrity with thousands of followers to make sure plenty of people know that you’re looking for research participants.

Tweet has received 8,380 impressions & 169 'engagements' - clicks, retweets, etc.

The power of Twitter to distribute a message comes into play when Tweets get retweeted – roughly the same as ‘sharing’ on other social media platforms. This is particularly useful when people or organisations have larger follower bases. If they retweet one of my recruitment tweets, the impressions of it increase into the thousands – as you can see from the image above. This is incredibly valuable in attracting participant recruitment, as we’re unlikely to have anywhere near this number of people in our email contacts list. Given the relatively low participation rates that surveys generally have, you’ll often need as many people as possible to know about what you’re researching if you want a reasonable number of participants.

Tagging a few Twitter users with large follower bases in the recruitment tweet – particularly those who might be interested in the research – also helps to spread the message. Leading academics in the field often have up to several thousand followers, and a retweet from them can go a long way. This is much less intrusive than asking via email, since they don’t need to think about who to forward it to themselves. Just one retweet click shares the message to all their followers. Tagging professional associations, peak organisations, or institutions may also result in a retweet, depending on whether the person curating that account sees it as relevant to their follower base.

Recruitment via Twitter is also powerful because it allows you to loosely target people in a particular area of interest, academic field, or institution that you’re hoping to reach. In the case of my air travel survey, I tagged the Australian academics that I follow (mostly sociologists), since those were some of the people I wanted to participate. They subsequently retweeted it to their followers, some of whom were likely to be Australian sociologists, but also academics in other fields. In this way, the tweet made it’s way through various communities of research that I am not a part of, as each person shared it with their own respective networks of followers.

Twitter does allow you to pay for tweets to get ‘promoted’, so they’ll appear in the feeds of users who don’t follow you. While I haven’t had any experience with this, it’s another way to leverage the platform to reach even more users who could participate in the research. Other social networks like Facebook can also be used to recruit people, although in my experience Twitter offers the best chance that your message will be distributed widely. This can be attributed to Twitter’s open architecture (where anyone can follow you, and vice versa), and a widespread willingness to retweet / share tweets with followers.

Twitter obviously isn’t going to be the best way to recruit participants for all research projects. You’re much less likely to recruit people who don’t use Twitter, who don’t speak your language, or who don’t have internet access or competency. Researchers should be aware of a ‘Twitter’ bias in sampling, if that’s likely to affect the data you get in any relevant way. If this is a concern, Twitter can be combined with other more ‘traditional’ forms of recruitment such as posting on notice boards, email lists, phone calls, or direct approach. Regardless of whether you think Twitter will affect the sample of research participants you get for the project, it’s important to acknowledge this method of recruitment in any publications of the research, and be clear about the nature of Twitter to those unfamiliar with it.

A potential drawback to recruiting research participants on Twitter is that you have very little control over the message once it goes out into the ‘Twittersphere’. In the case of my online air travel survey, this meant that non-academics were also likely to see the call for participants, and could feasibly have taken part, since the survey was anonymous. The survey did ask participants to confirm that they were currently working in an academic role, although someone determined to fraudulently fill in the survey could have done so if they were so inclined. This risk is not exclusive to recruiting via Twitter – since links to research conducted online can be obtained from websites and email lists – but the public nature of Twitter does mean that any recruitment message is almost guaranteed to be seen by someone other than the people you hope to recruit.

To summarise, Twitter is a great way to tell people about research and recruit participants, provided that you’re aware of how the platform works and plan your research accordingly.

3 Responses to Recruiting research participants using Twitter

  1. Diane Strode says:

    Thanks, this is an interesting idea. I have used LinkedIn in the past with success but I will now try Twitter too. I usually want to recruit IT professionals for my research. Regards – Diane S.

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  2. Just to note that there are ethical issues around internet-based/mediated research (e.g. valid consent, verification of identity, privacy, confidentiality, debriefing) that researchers need to be aware of and take into account when planning and carrying out studies. It’s an evolving area, and even some research ethics committees may not be familiar with all the issues. The following documents give some background and guidance: The British Psychological Society, Ethics guidelines for internet-mediated research http://www.bps.org.uk/system/files/Public%20files/inf206-guidelines-for-internet-mediated-research.pdf ; University of California, Berkeley, Committee for Protection of Human Subjects, Internet-based research http://cphs.berkeley.edu/internet_research.pdf.

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  3. badblood says:

    It would be important to think about two things before using twitter to recruit participants. One is whether a random sample is important to your methodology. If it is, it might be more important to use the sponsored tweet function to reach people outside your network. Just because someone with a lot of follower retweets you, it doesn’t mean all their followers actually saw your tweet, and the likelihood of missing your tweet increases with following count — so there’s a systematic bias towards people with smaller networks. Second is to think about who you’re *not* likely to reach, i.e. people who don’t use twitter. Research has shown there are age, class, literacy, and income effects for choice of platform — see for instance danah boyd’s seminal piece on ‘white flight’ from myspace to Facebook.

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