Recruiting research participants during a pandemic: Six lessons learned

INTERACT coordinator Marina Najjar walks us through her take-aways from Montreal’s Fall 2020 campaign.

While recruiting a representative cohort for a population health study is never easy, the COVID-19 pandemic has made this task especially challenging. In early March 2020, INTERACT was preparing to recruit participants in three Canadian cities — Vancouver, Saskatoon, and Montreal — for our study on the impacts of urban change on health and equity. Coinciding with our equity focus, we needed to focus our recruitment efforts on adults living in low socio-economic areas, neighbourhoods that are susceptible to gentrification. We had identified several strategies to achieve this, including working with community organizations to promote the study and recruit at local events, and using targeted social media campaigns through Facebook. Then COVID-19 hit, and we had to rethink our approach. How could we adapt to the constraints imposed by the pandemic? How could we still work with local community groups, without relying on in-person events and interactions?

After several months of recruiting during the pandemic, here’s what we’ve learned:

1. Build a strong network of local community organizers and partners

Local organizations work closely with residents and are trusted voices within the community. When it comes to reaching populations living in low income areas, community organizations are well positioned to build connections between potential participants and researchers. In order to achieve a representative sample, organizations can play a key role in spreading the word about the study through channels that you may not otherwise have access to. They can also have great insight into how to frame a message that resonates with the people you would like to engage.

Start by leveraging your existing research and professional networks. This could be city partners, knowledge users, or the extended research team. Reach out and ask them to refer you to organizations and people they work with who may be interested in collaborating.

As time goes on, you’ll have more contacts in the field with whom you can present the study on a one-to-one basis to establish a personal connection, or invite all of those who had expressed interest (and curiosity!) in the study to join a webinar. Organizing a webinar is a good way of bringing everyone together, and introducing the team and research program. Make sure to verbalise how you would like them to be involved in the study and leave room to adapt your approach to better meet community partner needs.

It’s important to build trust and reciprocal relationships with community organizations. It’s a two-way street, which means it’s important to listen to their needs and advice as experts within their field. What are they working on? What are their needs? How could the data collected help them fulfill their mandate?

Tip: Be clear on what you expect from community organizers. Do you want a mention on their network and social media? Do you want their advice on visuals and messaging? Do you want to collaborate with them? Be clear on how and why they should contribute to the study.

2. Compensate people from community organizations for their time

Once an organization is on board with recruiting participants for the study, the next step is to identify people within the organization who will be the point of contact between the research team, the organization, and the residents.

The most important lesson here is to value organizers’ time and compensate them with a wage (we recommend paying a stipend or hourly wage). The timeframe of collaboration should be established prior to recruitment and re-evaluated as recruitment targets are met or need to be adapted.

Tip: Create accessible tools for collaboration, such as a collaborative Google drive, a shared media package, a collaborative spreadsheet where they can input referred participants and set weekly meetings to stay up to date.

3. Engage online communities

You’ll also want to widen your circle by tapping into online communities, especially during the pandemic. Depending on your targeted audience, search for communities on multiple platforms such as on Facebook groups, Reddit or Kijiji (or Craigslist). Send out a message to administrators and ask if they can share the study for you (or alternatively, if you can post it yourself). We reached out to various neighbourhood support groups on Facebook (you’ll find that each neighbourhood has a number of Facebook groups) as well as activist groups.

Reaching out to university groups also proved to be quite useful as students were keen to learn more about the study and partake. Ask them to share the study in their network, and enquire about any upcoming online events or meetings. Sharing an invite to one of these forums is a great opportunity to share details on the study and start a discussion.

Tip: Search for student associations on each university’s website. They usually have a webpage with a list of student organizations/associations or societies. If they don’t have an email or contact info, you can also reach out to them via their social media.

4. Tailor recruitment materials to specific audiences

When using social media, it’s important to adapt visuals to specific contexts and audiences. For instance, use different tags and pictures for each neighbourhood. Use visuals that are familiar to your audience and messaging that is inclusive. We found that messaging about current events that concern residents (such as a major infrastructure project in the South Shore of Montreal) sparked much interest in and engagement on our Facebook posts.

Important: Be clear on what participation in the study entails, i.e. how much time it will take, what the data is used for, why participate, etc. You don’t have to have all this information on the social media post; however, it does have to be clear and visible on the website and survey.

Make sure to adapt visuals and messaging to each platform as well. Twitter and Instagram’s limited space don’t allow for much detail about the study, so you’ll want to go with catchy tag lines and calls to action. Facebook and posters on a billboard allow for more details, the bottom line is you want to direct people to the study website. However, if you are sharing information via newsletter articles you can go more in depth as to what the study objectives are and what participation entails. In all cases, spend time on your graphics to catch interest.

Tip: Ask your collaborators for their advice on visuals and messaging. They can share pictures of their neighbourhoods with you for social media posts.

5. Personalize the study: show the people behind the study

One of the main challenges during the pandemic was not being able to meet people face to face. This means that the only interaction participants have with the study is through the website or social media, which can be very impersonal. However, through our collaboration with community partners, we found that there are ways so overcome this hurdle. For instance, a community partner sent out a newsletter dedicated to INTERACT describing the study and presenting the research staff (with our pictures, emails, and phone numbers) to personalize the research. This allowed participants to see the faces behind the study and reach out to us if they had any questions. We also added a Google Form to the newsletter so that those who are interested in learning more can sign up and directly be contacted by us. This was a way to create opportunities to interact virtually with people and to build a relationship in a time where it is sometimes hard to do so.

We also adapted data collection, to allow participants to complete the online survey over the phone or by video-conference with research staff. This gave participants time to ask clarifying questions throughout the data collection process. While only a few participants chose this option, this was helpful to those who either did not have a computer or direct access to one, or those who needed help understanding some of the language used in the survey.

6. Offer the compelling incentives to encourage participation

Finally, we saw how important it was to provide incentives to participants. We offered a raffle where participants had the chance to win multiple prizes at the end of the recruitment. In fact, we noticed a stark increase in sign-ups when we started advertising our prizes: a computer, AirPods, 20 gift cards to local businesses, and a selection of books.

Providing fun incentives was a great way to motivate participants. In Saskatoon, our coordinator teamed up with local businesses: we bought gift cards from Saskatoon shops and asked those businesses for a shout-out on their social media. We chose businesses that had a significant Instagram following and whose products would be appealing to a wide audience (e.g. donuts!)

Overall, what challenges did the pandemic pose?

Community organizations have a lot on their plate. Since the beginning of the pandemic, they mobilised quickly to provide necessary resources, tools, and information to help communities deal with the health crisis. While the prospects of collaborating with a research team was always welcomed, some organizations simply did not have the time to invest in the study.

How did the pandemic provide an opportunity?

Working from home allowed for increased flexibility for communicating with community organizers. Multiple meetings, follow-ups, and calls would not have been as easy to do in an office environment. This process resulted in rich conversations about the INTERACT study. Through these meetings we have developed meaningful relationships with community organisations.

For future waves of recruitment, we will keep building our network of partners and reach out to participants with their help and expertise. If you have also been recruiting during the pandemic, let us know how you did it!

Marina Najjar is INTERACT’s Montreal coordinator. She leads the recruitment process across the city and is dedicated to building networks and connecting with people.

INTERACT is a pan-Canadian collaboration of scientists, urban planners, and citizens assessing how built environment interventions — like cycling and public transit infrastructure, greening, and public spaces — can affect our physical activity, social connectedness, and well-being. Learn more at www.teaminteract.ca

CIHR-funded research team harnessing big data to deliver public health intelligence on the influence of urban form on health, well-being, and equity.

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