Student studying on a laptop in George Green library

July 14, 2020, by sleatherland

Postgraduate Research – recruiting participants for research using social media

This week’s blog post is from Dr Julie McGarry (Associate Professor in the School of Health Sciences). Julie shares her experience of recruiting study participants online for research.


Online recruitment of participants for research has been around a while but it may be something you are considering for the first time during the Covid-19 pandemic. In this blog post, I share my experience of recruiting online and offer my top tips.

In 2016, I conducted a qualitative research study about women’s experiences of being pregnant beyond their estimated due date. I planned to conduct interviews with up to 15 women and an online focus group with 12 women. My original design involved recruitment of participants through community midwives but it quickly became clear that wasn’t going to be successful, so I had to think again.

After getting ethical approval for an amendment to my protocol to recruit online and via community advertising, I created a study page via callforparticipants.com – an online platform for showcasing research looking for participants. It was easy to create a professional looking page for the study. Members of the public could click on a link to say they wanted to take part and the website would send me their email address. I could then send the participant information sheet and enter into a conversation about whether they wanted to go ahead and take part.

I knew that just creating the webpage wouldn’t be enough if it was going to reach potential participants. At a regular meeting with our public involvement panel (Nottingham Maternity Research Network), I asked members of the public to share the link online, wherever they might go to talk about pregnancy and childbirth. By the next morning over 400 women had made contact!

Public involvement representatives at the meeting that afternoon had posted the call on social media (mostly on Facebook) as I had asked, and from there it had been shared many times, to social media groups all over the UK, in Ireland, and as far as North America. I recruited all the participants I needed and spent the next couple of weeks emailing everyone to say thank you for their interest and explain that the study was now full.

A range of factors contributed to the success of this study but I learned a few things about recruiting participants online. Here are my top tips:

  • Find out which social media platform(s) your potential participants are most likely to use, especially which they use to discuss topics similar to yours.
  • Get familiar with the social media platform(s) you are going to use, especially any conventions and abbreviations
  • Identify any hashtags that will help you reach potential participants.
  • Approach people to help share your call for participants online. This could be public involvement representatives, researchers in your field, activists, charities, or any well networked individual. Contact them in advance to offer some details about your study and ask for their help. I would always include the name of the PI/PhD supervisor and details of ethical approval. Offer to provide more information or have a chat if they want to know more.
  • Some charities will need to approve your study before they can share it on their social media channels. Find out about the process in advance.
  • Online calls for participants can travel quickly beyond their original site of posting. Make sure all the relevant information is included. If you are looking for participants in particular geographical areas, make sure that is clear.
  • Reflect on who you are likely to include/exclude by recruiting via social media and how that will shape your data.

These are my top tips but there are lots of ways to find out more: check textbooks about Internet or online research and search for journal articles in your discipline or topic area that report on social media recruitment methods. See a few suggestions below to get you started. Perhaps when you have completed your study, you might publish your experience of recruiting research participants via social media.

Herbell et al. (2018) Facebook or Twitter? Effective recruitment strategies for family caregivers. Applied Nursing Research 42: 1-4.

Hewson, C., Vogel, C. & Laurent, D. (2016) Internet Research Methods. SAGE Publications Ltd. (especially chapter on sampling in Internet Mediated Research) Available as an ebook via NUSearch.

Stokes, Y. et al. (2017) Using Facebook and LinkedIn to recruit nurses for an online survey. Western Journal of Nursing Research 41(1): 96-110.

Williamson, G.R. et al. (2018) mHealth resources for asthma and pregnancy care: Methodological issues and social media recruitment. A discussion paper. Journal of Advanced Nursing 74(10): 2442-2449.

Posted in Postgraduate research