Recruiting User Research Participants with Social Media

Jim Ross / Monday, May 19, 2014

Recruiting user research participants can be difficult and time consuming. Unless you already have lists of potential participants (such as customers, employees, or members) it can be hard to find and recruit the right people, and using a recruiting company can be expensive. Luckily, social media provides new options for reaching the right audience.

To understand how recruiting with social media can work, let’s look at it from the potential participant’s perspective. Imagine that you see a post on a social network about a study that’s looking for participants. You click on the link, and you’re taken to a web page with a more detailed description of the study. You click a link to a screening survey, and you fill it out. You’ve qualified as a participant, and you’re taken to an online, unmoderated usability test. An alternative is that your survey information is saved and you’re presented with a confirmation page that tells you that someone will call you to schedule time to do an in-person study.

How to Recruit Using Social Media

Recruiting with social media can be as simple as posting on Twitter or Facebook and having people contact you. However, that can leave you with a lot of people to handle, contact, screen, and schedule. Instead, you can save a lot of work by using a more organized method.

Write the Post

The post is so important that it requires careful thought instead of just making something up on the spot. Figure 1 below shows some example Twitter calls for participants. An effective post needs to be:

  • Brief: So it can be read quickly.
  • Attention getting: So people notice it and want to read it.
  • Explanatory: So people can quickly understand the basics of the study.
  • Pre-screening: So that it’s clear what type of people you’re looking for.
  • Legitimate: So that people trust it, and it doesn’t seem like a scam.
  • Persuasive: So that people are persuaded to click on the link to find out more.


Figure 1 – Tweets recruiting participants for usability testing


Create the Study Description Page

The link in the post should lead to a web page with a description of the study, as shown in Figure 2. This could be the first page of your survey, with a link to start the survey. The description is where you can provide additional detail. Similar to the post, an effective description needs to be:

  • Brief: It will likely be longer than the post, but it should still be a summary.
  • Well-written: Follow the rules for writing good online content. Keep it brief, simple, and easy to scan with headings and bullet points.
  • Explanatory: It should succinctly explain the study.
  • Pre-screening: It should again explain the type of people you’re looking for and can go into a little more detail. Be careful about giving away too much about the type of people you’re looking for. That can help people “cheat” the screener by guessing what answers to give in order to get accepted.
  • Legitimate: The description page also needs to look legitimate and trustworthy. Aspects that engender a feeling of trust are a professional-looking design, well-written content, using a logo and branding familiar to the potential participants, using a well-known survey tool, and including the name and contact information of the researcher.
  • Persuasive: It needs to clearly highlight the benefit of participating, such as an incentive.


Figure 2 – A study description page


Create the Survey

The description page should lead to a screening survey, to screen out unqualified participants. Writing an effective screener is a complex art. For more information about writing a screener, see my article, Recruiting Better Research Participants.

An online screener has to be brief, because people will get impatient and quit if the survey is too long. So only include the most necessary questions. Leave out anything that is less important, such as information gathering questions. If needed, you can add those to the end of the study.

Use a survey tool with logic rules to send unqualified participants to a page that informs them that they’re not qualified but thanks them for their time. Those who do qualify can proceed to the next step.

Send Participants to the Online Study

If you’re doing an online study, such as unmoderated usability testing or online card sorting, you can send qualified participants from the screening survey to the online study.

Send Participant Information to a Database

If you’re doing a moderated study, such as in-person or remote usability testing, you can save the qualified participants’ information to a database and contact them later to screen them further (if necessary) and schedule them. On the confirmation page, let them know what the next steps are and when they can expect to be contacted for scheduling.

Choosing a Social Network

Choose the social network that’s used by the people you’re trying to recruit. Social networks have different types of audiences and unique options to contact them.


Facebook has the broadest audience of over one billion people and provides the ability to target very specific types of people. Because most people use Facebook for their personal (not business) networking, Facebook is the best choice when you want to recruit people with specific personal characteristics and interests.

With Facebook ads, you can target by location, interests, age, gender, connections, and broad categories like college students, as shown in Figure 3. Facebook ads allow you to place your study announcement either in the News feed or in the right column of the Facebook pages of your target audience.

If you recruit often, you can create a Facebook page to recruit for specific studies and to recruit those who want to participate in future studies. That can help you build up a database of participants to draw from.

Figure 3 – Facebook ads allow you to reach a well-defined target audience.



LinkedIn is the primary outlet for professional networking, which makes it the best choice when you want to reach people in a particular profession, company, or industry.

LinkedIn offers content ads, postings to groups, and sponsored updates as shown in Figure 4. Ads and updates can be targeted to appear on people’s pages by job title, job function, industry, company name, company size, geography, age, and gender. LinkedIn Groups are another way to post messages to reach specific professions or interest groups.

Figure 4 – Sponsored updates to LinkedIn



Twitter has a much smaller audience than Facebook and LinkedIn, and its users tend to be more technology-savvy than the average person. So you should consider whether the types of people you’re trying to reach are on Twitter and whether they use it often enough to notice your tweets.

The easiest way to use Twitter is to tweet about your study and provide a link to the survey/information page, as shown in Figure 5. That may work if the people you’re trying to reach follow you or your company, but your followers may be limited and not representative of the type of person you’re looking for. However, they may retweet your message to their followers and may also refer people they know to your study.

Figure 5 – A tweet recruiting participants for a study


Twitter also allows you to pay for Promoted Tweets to get greater exposure. You can target promoted tweets by keywords, interests, gender, location, and by device. Targeting by keyword means that your tweets will appear when users search, tweet, or engage with a tweet that contains your keywords.


Craigslist isn’t a social network, but people sometimes use it to recruit user research participants. For example, focus group recruiting companies sometimes place Craigslist ads when they have a difficult group to recruit, as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6 – Craigslist posting for focus group participants


Before using Craigslist for recruiting you should ask yourself, “How often do the people I’m looking for go to Craigslist to find research studies to participate in?” In most cases, the answer will be rarely or never.

The problem with Craigslist is that most of the people who will notice your ad are professional research participants who supplement their income by participating in focus groups and other research. They have enough experience to slip past most screeners to get into studies. Unless you’re desperate, I wouldn’t recommend recruiting with Craigslist.


Recruiting is most effective when you have a connection to a source of participants, such as lists of customers, employees, or members. You can often use your client’s lists or connect with a third-party group to get in contact with their members. But when these options aren’t available, social media provides a good way to narrow down a general audience to get your call for participants in front of a targeted group.