Three Tips for Researching Hard to Reach Audiences


A lot of our work involves recruiting respondents from research panels. These are folks who have already agreed to participate in studies and who know what they’re getting into. Sometimes, though, we need to find people who aren’t on panels and may be suspicious of research. 

In my experience, the most critical thing in getting people to participate is trust: they have to have faith in the study and understand what’s in it for them. Without the built-in guarantees of a panel, we have to find other ways to get people to trust us. How do we do this?? I’ve found a few approaches that work…

1. Use trusted community members as go-betweens: A few years ago, we were hired to interview members of a Native American tribe in rural North Carolina. Most people didn’t have reliable phone or internet access, so we had to go door-to-door to reach them. Tribal leadership made it very clear that outsiders knocking on doors were not going to have much luck, so we hired and trained ten local women to recruit respondents and conduct interviews. This was a super interesting and successful study that helped drive tribal policy; see the full case study here!

2. Build trust BEFORE you need it: One of my earliest jobs was finding and surveying people who had absconded from a court-mandated drug treatment program. For most of them, being found meant they were headed for jail — so they definitely had a reason to stay hidden. Luckily, this was a longitudinal study and I had met and interviewed everyone before they left the treatment facility. After running away, they were willing to talk to me even while they were hiding out because they knew I wouldn’t tell their parole officer where to find them.

3. Meet people where they are: A beauty brand engaged us to conduct a survey and an online community with people who use makeup to transform their gender. The incidence of this group on most of our panels was less than 1%, so we had to go “into the wild” to find these folks. In this case, “the wild” was social media; we targeted ads to potential respondents on a few different platforms, and ended up recruiting the whole study on time and on budget!

My guiding philosophy is that most people like to talk about themselves; we just have to guarantee them a safe space. Building this trust isn’t always as easy as getting panelists to participate in research, but with a little “out of the box” thinking, I’m pretty confident that we can give anyone that guarantee!