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Recruiting User Research Participants by Email

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
November 3, 2014

Email is often the most effective way to recruit user research participants.

You might think: So what? Big deal! A whole article about emailing people? I already know how to email people.

Of course, successfully recruiting participants by email requires a lot more skill and effort than simply sending out a bunch of email messages. Do it well, and you’ll get all the high-quality participants you need. Do it poorly, and you’ll end up with few or no participants, which could delay or even doom your study.

In this column, I’ll detail some best practices and tips for successfully recruiting participants by email.

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Why Email?

Unlike phone calls, email messages are non-threatening, non-intrusive, and low pressure. Using email gives you the time to craft the right message, and it gives the recipient time to consider the possibility of participating.

Cold calls by phone are painful for everyone. While email messages sit politely in line, waiting until the recipient decides to read them; phone calls interrupt people, demanding an immediate answer. When people do answer calls from someone they don’t know, they immediately assume it’s a sales call or charity solicitation. It’s difficult and stressful to try to get your message across in the short period of time before people hang up on you. That’s one of the main reasons researchers use recruiting companies instead of making recruitment calls themselves.

Your first contact with participants sets their perception of you. Email messages are professional and respectable. Cold calls seem sleazy. Start off the researcher-participant relationship right with an email message.

When to Recruit by Email

Email recruiting works best when

  • you have easy access to lists of potential participants
  • the people you’re recruiting already have a relationship with the product or organization that you represent

So use email when you can easily get access to lists of potential participants such as customers, employees, organization members, students, or sales prospects. In addition to names and email addresses, these lists often include enough basic information about people to allow you to narrow your list to include just the types of people you need, without doing much additional screening.

Because the people in such lists already have a relationship with a product or organization, email is an effective approach of recruiting them. For example, potential participants may use a company’s products, work for the company, belong to an organization, or attend a university—or they may have been evaluating the software you’re testing. This existing relationship makes recipients more likely to notice, open, read, trust, and consider your request to participate in the research. For example, email recruiting works well for:

  • UX teams designing intranets—who can use employee directories to reach specific types of employees
  • consultants—who can recruit from their clients’ customer, employee, or member lists
  • in-house UX teams—who can ask product managers and salespeople for lists of current and prospective customers

When to Use a Method Other Than Email

Email recruiting does not work well when:

  • you lack access to lists of potential participants
  • you need to reach people who have no relationship to you or the product or company that you represent
  • you need to do a lot of screening

In such situations, it’s better to employ other methods of recruiting, such as using a recruiting company, posting calls for participation on social media, or using Web-site intercepts to find interested participants.

Planning for Email Recruiting

To ensure the effectiveness of email recruiting, it’s necessary to plan and organize your recruiting effort before sending out email messages to potential participants.

Plan Enough Time for Recruiting

Recruiting participants by email can require much more time than you might think—both in terms of the hours involved and the duration of your recruiting effort.

Set aside time just for recruiting. Gathering lists of potential participants, filtering them to select the right people to email, writing your email message, sending out the initial messages, replying to participants, scheduling sessions for participants, and sending out meeting invitations can be a full-time activity that takes several days.

Begin recruiting far enough in advance of the first day of the research sessions. Ideally, begin emailing people a week or two before the sessions. People don’t always read and answer email messages right away, and you may need to send several rounds of mailings before you end up with enough participants.

Gather Lists of Potential Participants

Determine the types of people you want to include in the research, and gather existing lists of such people. At a minimum, you’ll need their names and email addresses, but additional information lets you review and filter the list to screen out people who don’t seem to qualify for the research.

Assuage Company Concerns about Contacting People

You may encounter resistance or concern from internal groups about contacting the people on these lists. For example, Sales may be concerned that you’ll annoy existing or potential customers. Marketing may be concerned that your email messages will conflict with their messaging or increase the total volume of email that they send to customers. Legal may have to ensure that you follow regulations or policies about how these lists can be used. To assuage these concerns:

  • Use the power of your client or project sponsors to emphasize the importance of the research.
  • Create a brief explanation of the research and indicate what you’ll be doing to recruit participants, who you’ll contact, and how many times you’ll contact them.
  • Find out whether other people are also emailing the people on the list and how often.

Determine How Many People to Email

Most people won’t respond to your email messages, so you’ll need to send them to many more people than the number of participants that you need to recruit. For example, if you want 20 participants and you get a 10% response rate—which is actually pretty good—you’ll need to email 200 people.

When you have a very long list of people to contact, a good tactic is to first email only a portion of the people on the list. If you get a poor response rate to your first message, you can make adjustments to its text or improve the incentive that you’re offering, then send your revised message to a different group of people on the list to see how well it works.

Create a Tracking Spreadsheet

Recruiting can be a very hectic and overwhelming process if you don’t have a well-organized system to coordinate emailing, then scheduling participants. Sending out hundreds of email messages is just the beginning. People soon start responding, so you’ll have to answer their questions, coordinate the dates and times when they’re available, fit them into your schedule, send out meeting invitations, and deal with any changes or cancellations.

I use an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all potential participants and scheduled participants. One sheet contains the list of all potential participants, with columns for data that helps me keep track of when I sent each type of message and recipients’ responses. Another sheet contains the schedule of confirmed participants.

Get an Introduction

When the people you’re emailing don’t know you, it’s a good idea to first get introduced to them by someone they know. People are more likely to read, consider, and trust an email message that comes from a familiar source. For example, employees are more likely to trust an internal email message from a fellow employee, and customers are more likely to trust a request from a company that they patronize than a request from an unknown, third-party consultant.

The person introducing you should send the first email message to introduce you to potential participants, explain what you’re doing, and let them know that you’ll be contacting them. Then, you’ll take over from that point—sending your first email message, in which you should mention the name of the person who introduced you.

Go Through a Gatekeeper

In some situations, it’s best to go through a gatekeeper first rather than just emailing people directly. For example, you may need to contact a manager to get permission before contacting his or her employees. This is especially true for hourly employees, call-center workers, and employees who work with customers. Once you convince the manager that employees’ participation would be worthwhile and he or she approves and encourages their participation, it will be much easier to get people to volunteer to participate.

Introduce Yourself When You Can’t Get Someone to Introduce You

In cases where you don’t have anyone to introduce you, emphasize your connection with something that is familiar to potential participants. Refer to and emphasize this connection to the person, the company, or the product that you’re representing.

Writing and Sending Email Messages

You’ll need to carefully write the text of each message that you’ll send to potential participants. I put the text for each type of email message in a single Word document. Then, when I’m ready to send messages, I copy and paste the text from this document into each email message.

There are several different types of email messages that you’ll need to create:

  • introductory email message
  • first email message
  • second attempt
  • response to interested participants
  • meeting invitation
  • reminder email message
  • thank-you message

The Introductory Email Message

If someone is introducing you, prepare the text of an introductory email message that person can use in explaining the research to potential participants. In addition to making it easier for the person providing an introduction, this helps to ensure that he or she communicates the correct information. Include a brief description of who you are, what you’re doing, the benefit to the participant, and encouragement to participate. Allow the person introducing you to modify the text, as necessary, to fit his or her style.

The First Email Message

Your first email message is the most important one and requires the most careful preparation. The goal of the first email message is to get the reader to

  • open your message
  • trust it
  • read it
  • understand it
  • believe in the benefit of participating in the research
  • take the desired action—volunteering to participate

Use a Good Subject Line

The first challenge is to get people who are already wary of sales email messages and spam to open a message from someone with an unfamiliar name and a subject line that doesn’t speak to them. If someone has introduced you, they may remember your name, but you also need a subject line that looks legitimate, interests them in reading more, and seems relevant to them.

One subject line that I’be found works well is, “Help improve [application],” where [application] is the name of an application that recipients use or are familiar with. The application name makes your message relevant to them, the word help makes what you’re asking for clear, and improve implies a benefit to them.

Establish Credibility and Trust

Once recipients open your email message, it has to seem credible to them, so they’ll continue reading it, and it has to establish trust to get people to volunteer. Use the following techniques to add legitimacy to your request for help:

  • Get someone to introduce you or act as a gatekeeper whenever possible.
  • Name drop! Including the names of people, companies, or products that you’re representing and that are relevant to potential participants gets their attention.
  • Send your message from your work email account, not a personal email account like Gmail or Yahoo! Mail.
  • Provide multiple types of contact information, including your phone numbers and a link to your company’s Web site.
  • Emphasize that you’re a product designer or researcher whose goal is to better understand people’s needs and improve the product. You’re not a salesperson with an ulterior motive.
  • Send each individual person an email message rather than sending a mass mailing to many addresses at once.
  • Personalize each message by using the person’s name in the greeting—for example, “Hello Bob,” instead of just “Hello.”

Although you should personalize the messages to each participant, don’t use placeholders in your boilerplate email text. It’s very easy to forget to replace placeholder text and inadvertently send out an message with something like this:

“Hello [name],

Just checking again to see whether you or others at [company] would be interested in participating in our upcoming user interviews. …”

Instead, write generic email text so it will work regardless of whether you add personal information or send it out as is. For example, this text would work if you sent it out in its generic form:

“Hello,

Just checking again to see whether you or others at your company would be interested in participating in our upcoming user interviews. …”

But it would be even more effective if you personalized it:

“Hello Bob,

Just checking again to see whether you or others at Vandelet Industries would be interested in participating in our upcoming user interviews. …”

Keep Your Message Brief

Even if people believe your message is legitimate, they’ll have to expend time and effort to read it. So it has to seem brief and easy to read. Keep your message as short and as simple as possible, get to the point quickly, and provide just enough information to give them an idea of what you’re doing. Once you’ve written your message, go over it to see whether there’s anything you could cut.

You can wait to provide more complete details about your study in a second email message that you send only to those who have volunteered—people who have already shown interest and will take the time to read more about your study. Of course, they can always back out, if necessary, after learning the details of what’s involved.

Format Your Message for Easy Reading

Follow the same principles that you use when writing content for the Web. Make it easy to scan your message by using short paragraphs, bold headings, and bullet points. Separate important points into their own paragraphs. Highlight important information.

Use Simple Language

Once people begin reading your message, they have to understand what you’re asking. Use common terminology and avoid UX jargon. For example, if you’re conducting contextual inquiries, you definitely should not use that term in your first email message, because no one outside the UX world would understand it. Instead, you could use the more familiar term interview. In your second email message, you can explain your study in more detail—that you want to ask them questions and observe them performing tasks with the product. But in your first message, keep things simple.

Highlight the Incentives

To get volunteers, your email message has to convince recipients that they’ll benefit from participating in your study. The benefits could be

  • a tangible reward such as money, a gift card, or free products
  • the ability to make a difference, to have their opinions heard, and to influence a product that they use
  • getting credit for participating from a manager or other influential person
  • the good feeling of helping someone out
  • the unique and interesting experience of participating in a research session

Specifically mention the tangible rewards, but imply the other incentives by emphasizing the importance of their participation in influencing the direction of the product.

Make Their Desired Action Clear

Once you’ve convinced people to volunteer, they need to know what action to take next. State the desired action near the beginning of your message, then repeat it at the end. You may also want to highlight this with bold text to make it really stand out.

The Second Attempt

Sometimes you’ll be lucky and get enough participants from your first mailing, but at other times, you’ll need to send email messages to additional people to try to get more participants. In some cases, you may run out of people who could potentially be participants, so you’ll have to try the same people again by sending them a second email message. The trick is not to annoy people, because some of them, although interested, might not yet have had enough time to respond to your first message.

Wait at least two days before sending a second-attempt email message. Keep its text similar to that of your first message, but change the introduction so it’s not exactly the same. For example, you might want to start it off with something like, “I just wanted to check again to see whether you would be interested in….” ┬áThis message has a respectful, almost apologetic tone about contacting them again, making it clear that you respect their time and attention. If you still don’t hear anything from them after a second attempt, take the hint and don’t email them again.

Response to Interested Participants

When people respond with the dates and times that they’re available, you can skip this step and, instead, just send them a meeting invitation. But I’ve found that many people simply respond that they’d like to participate without providing their available dates and times, so you’ll need to request information about their availability. This message should also be brief and focus on getting the information you need to schedule a meeting. For example, it could be as simple as the following:

“Hi Bob,

Thanks for your help. What dates and times would work well for you? Please let me know, and I’ll send you a meeting invitation with the details.

Thanks,
Jim”

Don’t make the mistake of providing more details about the research at this point. The length of your first email message caused these people to overlook your request that they send you the dates and times when they’re available. So be sure to keep this message brief. Once you’ve scheduled participants, you can provide more details.

Meeting Invitation

Add the participants to your schedule, then send each of them a meeting invitation with all the details about the research session, including the date, time, location or online-meeting link, phone number, directions, parking, and your contact information. You can also provide details about your study, including what to expect and anything that would help them to prepare before the session.

Reminder Email Message

In some cases, you might want to send a reminder email message the day before a session, including the same details that are in the meeting invitation. Most business people follow their calendars closely, so a reminder may not be necessary. But if you’re doing research on people’s use of a product in their personal lives, they may not have a personal calendar—or if they do, may not pay close attention to it. So a reminder would be helpful.

Thank-You Message

In addition to thanking the participants in person and giving them their incentive, it’s a nice touch to also send them a thank-you message. Leaving people with a good feeling about the experience may make them willing to participate in future research or to introduce you to other potential participants.

Handling a Poor Response Rate

If you’ve emailed everyone on your list, and you still don’t have enough participants, try some of these solutions:

  • Have a colleague review your first email message to see whether it’s easy to understand, could be shorter, or could be improved.
  • Try to find additional lists of people to whom you can send email messages.
  • Get someone to introduce you to potential participants, if you haven’t already, or get someone who may be more effective to make an introduction.
  • Increase the incentive that you’re offering in exchange for participation.
  • Ask the participants who you’ve already scheduled to recommend other people who fit your profile.

If you still can’t find enough participants, it’s possible that emailing people may not be the best method of recruiting for the types of participants you need. Consider other methods such as using a recruiting company, Web intercepts, or social media.

Conclusion

Email can be the most direct, personal, and effective way of recruiting participants. Although sending out email messages may seem deceptively simple, doing this effectively requires a lot more work than you might think. By following the tips and best practices in this column, you’ll get more participants and better-quality participants with less effort. Good luck! 

Principal User Experience Architect at Infragistics

Cranbury, New Jersey, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

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