As qualitative researchers, we are tasked with capturing the voices of a target population, but oftentimes, certain segments of the target population are extremely difficult to find and recruit.

Through our experiences conducting research across the U.S. for the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program (that provides food, nutrition education and breastfeeding assistance for families at or below 185 percent of the poverty level), we have discovered several key lessons to help identify and recruit hard-to-reach populations.

Some of our most recent work for the Arizona WIC program required focus groups with both English and Spanish speakers who meet the WIC income guidelines, but have never been on WIC before. Good luck, right? This is a small percentage of the population!

For statewide recruitment, we turned to Facebook ads. This worked well for recruiting the English speaking population, but failed with the Spanish speaking population. Nearly all of the Spanish speakers who responded to our ad qualified for WIC, but were already participating in the program. The remaining Spanish-speaking respondents exceeded the WIC income guidelines substantially. In a previous project, we used a recruitment facility to find these individuals, but they, too, had difficulty locating this audience. In fact, over 50 percent of the participants in our focus groups were bilingual, non-native Spanish-speaking individuals, rather than native Spanish speakers. Determined to find native Spanish speakers who were eligible for the WIC program, but who had never been on WIC, we abandoned the Facebook ad and opted to recruit through local community programs familiar with this population.

In order to recruit low-income Spanish speakers, it was critical that we connect with local community members who were trusted and well-liked by our target population. Although it took a lot of time and persistence to network and find the right people to help us recruit, our efforts paid off and we were able to recruit this hard-to-reach population using Promotoras. These community members are trained to provide basic health education to others in Hispanic/Latino communities and are trusted and respected liaisons between their neighbors and local health and human service organizations.

We hope the lessons we learned through this process may help others in their qualitative research endeavors.

  1. Hard-to-reach populations are truly hard to reach! Why? Because they typically do not opt-in to online surveys, panels, focus groups, etc. We’ve found that this occurs because they are unaware of market research opportunities, or they simply do not want to be found, which means they are rarely identified through traditional market research recruitment methods.
  2. Use your networks; they are key to your recruiting success. Put your client and personal networks to work to help maximize your recruiting efforts. Ask for introductions to others who are in a position to help recruit your target audience. Carefully consider whom you will ask to help with recruitment endeavors because your target audience must like and trust these individuals. For example, we experienced great recruiting success with existing community organizations whose staff were well-liked and trusted by local, low-income Spanish speakers. Specifically, we partnered with Promotoras at local community health centers and doctor’s offices to help recruit Spanish speakers. To locate the Promotoras, we worked through our clients’ professional networks, requesting introductions to many community partners, who then referred us on to individuals in their networks. This particular example illustrates how valuable clients’ networks are when recruiting hard-to-reach populations. Other methods include: (1) obtaining lists of phone numbers in order to call our clients’ former participants/customers; (2) requesting individuals we’ve already recruited to ask a friend to participate; and (3) asking local program staff – who are peers and connected to the population – to help us recruit. However, we caution that each of these approaches may potentially introduce bias into your studies. Think about your own hard-to-reach populations and who they like and trust – these are the people with whom you want to connect. If you don’t know them, use your networks to gain introductions.
  3. Go where they are. Social networks are a great recruitment resource for general audiences and some special audiences as well. However, it is our experience that certain segments of low-income populations are not as prevalent on social media (e.g., Facebook). Oftentimes, these individuals aren’t on social media because they don’t have a smartphone or computer to access the Internet. Thus, don’t rely solely on this medium. Learn where your hard-to-reach populations live, work and play, and meet them there. This may mean attending faith-based organizations, community health fairs, flea markets and local parent meetings to talk about your project and recruit participants. For example, we recruited hard-to-reach populations at a school health fair by setting up a table with items of interest.
  4. Be organized. When calling on networks to help you recruit, you must know exactly what you want from them before you call and what you will provide in return for their help. You may only get one opportunity to talk, so have your pitch prepared! Be ready to quickly establish rapport, authority and credibility all while being polite and patient. In addition, be flexible and prepared to conduct your research on the spot.
  5. Be persistent. Be prepared to call and call and call again. Explain to them who you are and what you are doing. Do not expect to get a call back from them; it is not going to happen. Keep calling.
  6. Choose incentives wisely. Know what incentives will resonate with your population. Most groups prefer cash. We’ve had a couple of instances where we were conducting online or phone groups and did not have a cash option. Visa gift cards work great with English speaking audiences who are familiar with the gift card process. However, we found that some low-income Spanish speakers are not familiar with how Visa gift cards work and are fearful they must provide personally identifying information in order to use the gift card. If you end up using gift cards, be prepared to explain how they work.
  7. Be Patient. Recruiting hard-to-reach populations takes time. If at all possible, add two extra weeks to the project timeline to allow ample time to network and find the right people who can and are willing to help you recruit your target audience.