From an article I just published in Quirk’s on recruiting by the researchers:
The gist is fundamentally simple — recruiting isn’t something you hand off, it’s part of the process.
Define the contexts
Where does an activity or practice take place? Defining the contexts we want to examine helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation. We frequently recruit based on demographics and occasionally psychographics that are derived from segmentation studies provided by the client. There is nothing wrong with segmentation studies or using them as a basis for grounding your participant base but it is important to recognize that individuals do not work as solo performers. Their actions, beliefs, practices, etc., are all shaped by the settings and situations in which they interact with others.
Theoretical sampling often seeks maximum variation rather than a representative slice of reality. In other words, anthropologists are interested in the systematic study of the contexts surrounding a particular consumer product or business practice. If researchers find meaning in the contexts that surround what people do, then why would the individual person be the unit of measurement around which to build a sampling design?
Ethnography takes place within a natural setting where relevant events and behaviors are occurring. Regardless of the methodology being used, this basic precept of the ethnographer holds true. That means the sample is more than a fixed set of people, it is defined by a range of activities. For example, if you are interested in studying how people use beer, it makes sense to think about all the settings in which beer is consumed, purchased and used – parks, picnics, bars, restaurants, parking lots and a host of other locations. If you understand the possible ranges of context, you can recruit against a wider range of possible interactions and gather richer insights.
Define the sample
Who are the people we want to talk with? What are the social and cultural circles that will shape the event? It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural, social, professional and environmental systems. We tend to reduce people to their parts rather than thinking about them in a broader context. Endless attitudinal statements, with scales for “agree” and “disagree,” are constructed and by the very nature of the question structure have severe limits. Most conventional research consists of predetermined questions and parameters that force research subjects into narrow channels of response. And these are often as much a bias of the researcher as a reflection of the consumer’s worldview. The very nature of posing a direct question immediately primes the respondent to seek the “right” answer. Recruiters, tasked with providing bodies for a study, understandably fill the quotas derived from segmentation schemes that may have extremely limited practical validity.
Why does this matter? Because people take on different roles throughout the day and under different conditions. Furthermore, who we are is shaped by our interactions with others. In contrast, ethnographic research routinely reveals that customers are more alike than different at the source of their behavior. And where the differences lie, they are far more profound and surprising than the answers segmentation will reveal. It uncovers how the entire human experience translates into the act of being a customer for a particular brand, product or service. It moves beyond attributes. It provides a clear view of cultural and behavioral categories based on the social, cultural and psychological needs and barriers driving customer feelings and thoughts. And because it looks through the lens of a holistic system structure, it yields a more realistic understanding of the customer than traditional methods. It produces insights and understandings that can be more predictive of the possibilities of the future than demographic, attitudinal or psychographic data. That means better recruiting and better research.
Be willing and able to recognize potential participants while you are actually doing the work. Take advantage of the setting and use it to recruit. We often overlook the situations we find ourselves in, missing opportunities to gather a wider range of experiences and perspectives. The plane, the party, the person in the shoe store – they are all opportunities to strike up a conversation and find participants.
But why do it? There are a several reasons. First, context shapes behavior and conversation. The nature of the interaction we initiate in one setting will produce a different kind of interaction than we may experience in another venue. That means that once the participant is recruited and the setting changes, we may uncover potential differences between what they say or do in one context to another. Contradictions are where some of the most powerful insights usually occur. Which leads to the second point: Recruiting in the field begins the data collection process and helps to develop a theory behind what you’re seeing earlier in the research. It is an opportunity to start formulating questions and ideas based on firsthand interaction rather than waiting until you meet a participant for the first time.
Third, recruiting in the field often leads to a greater rapport. Rather than being a stranger who shows up at your doorstep one afternoon, the participant already has a sense of relationship, provided you’ve taken the time to strike up a solid conversation. Participants recruited in this way have a different set of expectations and take on a role that breaks free of the researcher/participant paradigm because this sort of recruitment changes the power dynamic, moving the nature of the interaction from a transaction to one of genuine sharing.