Tips for Using Social Media to Recruit Research Participants

Using a paid advertising strategy on social media can be an efficient, cost-effective strategy to recruit participants for your health research study. In this article, we provide some strategic and tactical tips for running an effective paid social media campaign.

Tip 1: Lay the strategic groundwork

The general framework of your social media strategy needs to ensure the following are covered:

  •         The target audience you are trying to reach
  •       The message you are trying to communicate
  •         The platform(s) you are using (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram)
  •         Any guidance or directives from your university ethic’s board for social media recruiting (if available)

Tip 2: Speaking of ethics…

If your ethics board doesn’t have its own set of directives for engaging in social media recruitment, it’s a good idea to review those which have been published in peer-reviewed manuscripts. Citing these in your ethics application can help to streamline your review process and provide reassurance to your ethics board that social media can be safely and responsibly used for recruitment.

To avoid future ethics amendments, include as much detail about your recruitment strategy as you can in your initial application. For example, list all platforms that you might use (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter), even if you plan on starting with just one. Also, plan and create any content you may use (including any images, videos, and written copy) to get ethics approval for all at the start.

Tip 3: Embrace audience targeting

The power to preferentially show your recruitment ad to certain populations is one of the biggest advantages to paying for social media advertising. You will be paying for every ‘impression’ (view) of your ad, so do your best to narrow down that audience as much as possible. You can set age, gender, location, and other certain demographic characteristics (depending on the channel).

Tip 4: Move slowly, pivot as needed

Start slowly and always have a learning mindset. Getting results on social media is a moving target, so focus small, learn, iterate, and advance. Even if your ad is performing well, remember that as more people see the ad, the less effective it will eventually become. Change up ad copy if the ad metrics shows that many people have seen the ad multiple times.

Also, be careful with any large increases in budget, even if for a well-performing ad. If you want to ‘turn up the spigot’ and get more participants more quickly, it’s a good idea to gradually increase your budget and give the network algorithms time to adjust.

Case study

To show these tips in action, here is a case study from a recent research recruitment campaign that we managed:

Our client was recruiting parents of preschool-aged children to participate in surveys and interviews. Before we joined their campaign, they had successfully recruited about half of their target sample by asking their university to share the study on their social media channels. Unfortunately, they found that their study had poor diversity, with overrepresentation of white, urban-dwelling, college-educated mothers. We were engaged to help them diversify their recruitment by using paid advertising.

Because this was a new strategy, we had to first submit the new social media plan and content as an ethics modification. We created a detailed social media plan that included multiple types of audience targeting and content (images, video, and text). Sending ethics everything we thought we might deploy would have given us the freedom to quickly ‘pivot’ if our first strategy hadn’t yielded good results.

We used Facebook advertising and set up the audience parameters to identify users who may be parents of preschool children. We also set up geographic restrictions so that the ads would be seen primarily lower-income, more diverse communities. Because it was a new campaign, we set up an initial weekly budget that was well below the target weekly spend. This ensured that the Facebook’s algorithms could optimise the campaign before we started slowly increasing the budget until we met our recruitment target. In the end, the sample that was recruited via targeted Facebook ads had higher diversity with regards to education and ethnicity than those recruited via the researchers’ university social media channels.  The cost per participant was also lower than what we would have paid using a panel recruitment service.


Good planning and careful audience targeting are key to getting the most bang for your buck when recruiting via social media ads. In addition, once you have implemented your strategy, it is important to start slowly, keep an eye on its performance, and be open to learning and iterating often.

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