A Dime a Dozen

The Realities of Recruiting for Ethnographic Research

All good market researchers know that a qualitative study is only as good as those who have been recruited to participate in the study. This fact is even more true in the case of ethnographic and observational research, the study of consumers in their natural or “home” environment.  The recruiting problems typical of traditional qualitative research become even more emphasized in ethnography.  For example, if a person is not there when the researchers show up at his/her house or if the person recruited does not meet the screener specs used to recruit, the time and effort of the researchers is wasted.  In a traditional qualitative research, these situations would be dealt with by over-recruiting and then dismissing a number of the recruited respondents.  In ethnographic research, the options are more limited.  The goal of this article is to discuss some of the difficulties in recruiting for ethnographic and observational research and some ways of overcoming those concerns.

Good recruiting is difficult in ethnography.  In atypical ethnographic research study, expect three out of ten respondents recruited to be unsuccessful.  For example, one respondent will not be in the location as the expected time.  One respondent will not fit the screening specs identified or not be articulate, and another will have either moved the week before the research or the directions are incorrect and the research team gets lost.  There are a number of things that can be done to increase the probability of a good respondent. 

General Hints about Recruiting

  1. Always over-recruit for every interview time slot: This will save many headaches when the research team arrives at the consumer’s location and he or she is nowhere to be found.  Time is money for the sponsoring company and a wasted hour or two can cost them more than to have an extra person recruited and waiting at home as a back-up. 
  2. Recruit respondents within 30 minutes driving distance of one another: Again, time is money.  If the research team is spending hours driving in the car, they are not using their time effectively.  In thinking about driving distance, the time of day the research team will be driving needs to be considered.  If they are driving during rush hour, then extra time needs to be allotted to get them to their destination.
  3. Get very good directions to the consumer location: The perfect consumer may have been recruited, but if the research team cannot get there, then it is worthless.  A frustrated and flustered team arriving late to a consumer’s house is already starting the visit off on the wrong foot from both parties’ perspectives. The first thing is to make sure that the team has a correct name, address and phone number of the person being visited.  Call the interviewee the day before and make sure s/he is still living there and is planning to be there when the team arrives.   Also, it is recommended that the research team be given as many resources as possible to get them to the location of the interview. Supply them with maps, internet directions, verbal directions from the interviewee as well as their GPS.  These are even more important if the team is in an unfamiliar city. 
  4. Be flexible with scheduling interviews: If the sponsoring company would like to get the best research results, the research team needs to be available when the consumer is relaxed and doing the type of activities they would like to see.  Sometimes these times are very inconvenient to the typical work day.  If the team wants to see an activity that is typically conducted on the weekend, like raking leaves, mowing the lawn or waxing the car, then the team will have to come to the consumer’s house on the weekends.  A good example of an incompatible time would be a mid-day interview to watch the respondent cook dinner.  In this case, the sponsoring company is going to miss out on a lot of the environmental factors that would influence the dinner and cooking experience such as, kids requesting the attention of mom during preparation, the husband coming home and laying all of his stuff on the kitchen table, the dog who needs to be fed and the child who needs to be taken to soccer practice.  To get the most natural response, there is a trade-off the sponsoring company has to make.  If the research needs to be conducted on the sponsoring client’s schedule, then sticking with more traditional approaches may be the best way to pursue the research.  

Screener Recruiting

In a traditional market research study, a screener would be used to recruit participants.  Screeners can still be used as one of the measures to recruit in ethnography, but it is recommended that it be used in conjunction with other measures. Screeners ask potential respondents to put themselves into a particular category.  If screeners are designed correctly, they will not have leading questions, so the respondent will not know the qualifying answer.  The difficulty with screeners is when behavior-oriented questions are asked in the screener.  These questions open up the opportunity for larger margins of error because the answers can be situational,depend on the respondent’s mood or the respondents could be projecting their idealized self.  A way to overcome this is to ask more environmental open-ended questions in the screener first or stick to factual questions that do not ask for subjective behavior.  For example, if you want to better understand someone’s eating habits, ask them to open-up their pantry or refrigerator and tell you what is in it or ask them what they have eaten in the past 24 hours, rather than asking them to categorize themselves as one type of eater over another. 

Another difficulty in recruiting is the client expectation of the type of person they will be interviewing.  If the sponsoring company is not used to spending one-on-one time with their consumer, they may be in for a real shock when they visit their consumer in their natural environment.   Many companies are used to viewing their consumer from a research report perspective. A consumer is seen as a segment of the market and there are a number of demographic and psychographic profiles that the consumer has been categorized into.  Just like in personality tests, a person cannot be put solely into one category. They will have general tendencies towards one area or another, but those can change over time and can depend on the circumstances surrounding the behavior.  Using the traditional recruiting and screening method will leave the sponsoring company at a loss when they go to visit their consumers.  There are a number of ways to overcome this circumstance. The first is to coach the sponsoring client about those type of questions ahead of time.  If the sponsoring company has not had a lot of contact with their consumer, they need to be coached that just because a person does not fit the exact profile of the consumer segment, it does not mean that they are not the correct consumer.  As long as they fit into a majority of the segment profile, then they are exactly the type of person the sponsoring company is looking to interview.  Other methods to alleviate this concern are going to be discussed in the remaining portion of this article.

Using a Professional Recruiter

Professional recruiters are people who have expertise in recruiting.  Many work for focus group facilities and have access to databases of people with different demographic and psychographic profiles.  Typically, they use a team of recruiters who call people from the database and use a screener to determine if the person qualifies for the research.  There are a few recruiters who use more unconventional methods of recruiting such as face-to-face recruiting, in which they drive to the prospective interviewee’s location to see if s/he would participate in the research.  This type of recruiting is especially beneficial when recruiting businesses to participate in research.

Finding a good professional recruiter for ethnography can be difficult.  The typical recruiter recruits for traditional research and is not used to dealing with all the details of ethnographic research.  Unfortunately, details can make or break an ethnographic research project.  The most important part of finding a good professional recruiter is to screen them. Below is a list of questions or things to look for in a professional recruiter:

  1. Have they recruited for in-home interviews or ethnographic research before?
  2. Does their database or recruiting area cover the type of person or business the sponsoring company is looking for?
  3. Do they use recruiting methods other than phone screening, such as face-to-face or online screening?
  4. Are they willing to take care of some or all of the logistic aspects of the recruiting, such as directions, copies of screeners, incentives and  reminder phone calls?

Once a good professional recruiter is located, it is extremely important to be upfront about the expectations and details of the recruit.  The sponsoring company needs to let the recruiter know:

  • The method of screening to be used
  • The specs and screener to be used to recruit
  • How far the research team is willing to drive between interview visits
  • How the directions should be done and put together
  • Homework to be sent out to the recruited respondents ahead of time

The sponsoring company also needs to be prepared to pay a small administrative fee for these extra services.

Even good professional recruiters face quite a few obstacles in recruiting for ethnographic research.  The first obstacle the recruiter is up against is the database the recruiting firm is using.  Those who are in the database were probably under the assumption that their name would be included in the database so they could participate in a focus group at the facility of the recruiter.  Unfortunately, we don’t live in the hospitable country of 200 years ago, and consumers are hesitant to give their address, phone number and directions to someone and agree to have two or three strangers come to their house to interview them, take a tour of their home and take video or pictures of them and their belongings.  How can the consumers be reassured that this is not a ploy to rob or con them? 

This is not as much of a problem when recruiting in a business-to-business environment, but there are a couple of ways to alleviate this concern in the in-home consumer environment.  The first way is to choose a reputable recruiting firm that has gained the trust of those in its database, and then have the recruiter recruit people who have participated in some type of research with the facility before. This shows the recruited consumer that the recruiting firm is serious and trustworthy.  Another way to alleviate that concern is to let the person being recruited know that they can have other friends or family members present during the visit.  Although the next technique could bias the respondent, the recruiter could also let the recruited respondent know what company is sponsoring the research.  This can be done a number of ways such as having the field team give the respondent business cards when they arrive, having the recruiter tell the potential respondent in the recruiting call the name of the sponsoring company or the names of those who will be coming to his/her house or telling the respondent the name of the sponsoring company at the end of the visit.  The latter is the method that least biases the respondent.  The recruiter could also give the names of the people on the research team who will be visiting them.  The last and sometimes the most effective method is to pay them more money for their trust.  This last method is recommended even if other methods are not implemented because it compensates the respondent for taking the extra risk.

Other Methods of Recruiting in Ethnographic and Observational Research

A professional recruiter is one way to do recruiting for ethnographic research, but there are other alternatives.  Some of the other approaches are as follows:

  1. Internal Recruiting: This is an time intensive approach because for every hour spent conducting the research, at least ten hours are spent preparing for and being administrating during and after the research.  This can be a money saving method, if the sponsoring company has the extra manpower and time.  This also gives the opportunity for the sponsoring company to be in complete control of the recruiting to make sure it is done correctly.
  2. Using a Focus Group: This method uses a traditional research approach to recruiting for ethnography and can employ a professional recruiter to do what they do best.  Using this method, at the end of the focus group time, a few respondents from a focus group are asked to participate in further research.  This method gains the trust of the respondent and assures that the person is qualified for ethnographic research.  Using this method does add more expense to the sponsoring company, but it can be combined with other research efforts.  Again, it is important to clarify this expectation with the recruiting facility ahead of time to make sure they do not have a problem giving the sponsoring company the name, phone number and address of the respondent so the sponsoring company can choose to follow-up with them.  The recruiting facility will need to get permission from the respondent to give out this information in order to meet most ethical standards set by organizations such as the Marketing Research Association.
  3. Set up a follow-up 15-minute interview: Using this method, the respondent would be recruited and a 15-minute follow-up phone interview would be set-up for a later point.  The interview would clarify some of the screener questions using open-ended and environmental questions.  A trained interviewer would need to be used to eliminate leading or biasing the potential respondent.  If a professional recruiter is used for this method, it is recommended that someone other than the recruiting facility conduct the interviews for quality assurance.
  4. Using an Online, Television or Print Ad or Flier with the Recruiting Specs: This method allows those who might be prospective respondents to reply.  If potential respondents call, then the recruiter is guaranteed that they are interested in participating.  This method is tricky because there is a great potential for con-artists to try to qualify for the research.  It is important to conduct a careful screen of the people who have responded to the ad or flier.  Some things that can help to get qualified respondents is to post the ad or flier in areas where qualifying respondents would be found such as organizations, associations, support groups or clubs.  It may be helpful to combine this method with other methods to increase the likelihood of a quality recruit.
  5. Go to where The Consumers are likely to be: This method requires a person to be in places where qualifying consumers are likely to be found and recruit them face-to-face.  These places could be stores, support groups, churches, organizations, associations or clubs qualifying respondents shop-in or attend. It is very important to get permission from the owner of that space before a recruiter begins recruiting.  In some cases, the owner of the space will offer to do the initial recruiting and screening for the sponsoring company, which helps the sponsoring company to gain credibility among potential respondents.

Although recruiting for ethnographic and observational research is more difficult and tricky than traditional approaches, the pay-offs are rewarding.  The in-depth understanding of consumers and their environment is more valuable than the traditional approaches.  The extra time and money spent will be well worth it.  Remember, if the right people are found to participate in any research method, then the likelihood of successful research is greatly increased.  

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