Recruiting the public for focus groups: my challenges

22 Apr

My PhD is a qualitative interpretive study underpinned by weak social constructionism and part of my data collection methods was focus groups. I conducted 15 focus groups in total (8 with the public and 7 with healthcare professionals) from the East and West of Scotland.

To prepare myself, I read lots of literature and research books and felt confident that they would be relatively straightforward. Overall, I really loved doing them. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Here I will share some challenges I faced with public recruitment and how I addressed them. Further blogs will follow about other aspects of my focus groups and interviews:

For me, this was the least enjoyable phase and I found it very stressful. In fact, I didn’t enjoy it at all!  I initially planned for purposive sampling so I could include members of the public with a range of demographic characteristics (age gender, education level, occupation etc.). This would be done with the use of a screening questionnaire.

I started with putting up this nice laminated poster in shops, cafes, taxi ranks, GP practices, Dental practices etc. and expected the phone to start ringing pretty much straight away. It didn’t! An important tip here is that if you are using a mobile phone, don’t use your own one. Buy a cheap pay-as-you go one with a number that you’ll never use again. Some of the text messages I received are not repeatable!

So after a week of nothing, I then placed adverts in the local newspapers (all editors were very kind and did this free of charge). A little better response, but not much! Only 4 people came forward. Nowhere near the numbers needed. Next strategy was opportunistic. Chatting to a friend about my frustrations of recruitment, she knew someone who worked in one of the geographical areas I was targeting. A telephone call later, and  snowball sampling from this person led to the recruitment of 6 people for one focus group. Further snowball sampling from the 4 people who responded to the newspaper adverts saw the recruitment of another 5 people. This meant I had enough people for 3 focus groups.

My final strategy was the most effective and I wished I had done this at the beginning – I targeted existing social groups at local community centres (Jenny Kitzinger has written a lot about the effectiveness of this approach). Before their class, I spoke to them, explained the purpose of the study and gave out participant information leaflets. I set up a room in the community centre for the focus groups and asked them to come along after their class if they were interested in taking part. So many people responded to this that I even had to turn some away! I then managed to conduct all my planned focus groups.

So my lesson learned: The public generally don’t not want to take part in research, but they are very busy people.  If you wait for them to come to you, you’ll likely have a long wait. In the end I went to them (ethically approved) and was humbled at the positive response I got. People were genuinely interested in my topic and wanted to share their opinions and experiences. While I didn’t purposively sample in the way I planned, it didn’t matter. I was exploring public perceptions and experiences from two different geographical areas and that’s exactly what I did.

Next I will share my experiences of recruiting healthcare professionals.

Keep going and you’ll get there in the end!  Hearing other people’s experiences and challenges is very helpful – for the next time and for others still to go through this process so please do share yours here. Was your recruitment process straightforward or did you face some difficult challenges?


13 Responses to “Recruiting the public for focus groups: my challenges”

  1. Salma Patel (@salma_patel) May 15, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    HI Emma,

    Thank you so much for writing this up and my apologies for the much delayed response.

    I am also looking at random sampling (as random as it can get in qualitative research), however, I am realising that my strategy may need to be modified to snowball sampling, because as you describe recruitment to research is not an easy task.

    Were you worried that because you had snowball sampling in the end, you were more likely to get people who were from the same demographics/similar interests/background instead of a diverse range of people? Could this or did this have an impact on your results?


    • Emma Burnett May 16, 2012 at 8:36 am #

      Hi Salma
      This response probably reflects my response above. I initially thought I would have a nice sample of people of all different ages, characteristics etc, but this actually doesn’t matter. My only real requirement was the two contrasting geograhpical locations. Qualitative research requires us to gain a range of views, experiences etc, which each individual has anyway. When we write up qualitative data, we are not looking to say ‘half the sample said this’ or ‘only two people said that’ because that isn’t the purpose of qualitative research. It serves no purpose as it can’t be generalised (more transferability). Rather we discuss the range of diverse views and develop explanations for them. During our analysis, we will create descriptive themes, then conceptual categories, then higher order concepts so we are looking for co-occurrence, patterns and just generally exploring what is going on in the data, then looking for explanations. So although not everyone will be saying the same thing, they may be talking about the same thing in relation to our conceptual categories.

      Hope this helps! If you have further questions, please do post 🙂

  2. Kassidy March 29, 2013 at 3:56 pm #


    Recruiting is not always as easy as you would think! I understand your frustration.

    • Emma Burnett March 29, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

      I completely agree with you, so not surprisingly, it’s quite euphoric when it eventually happens. Thank you for your comment 🙂

  3. Mia June 19, 2017 at 12:36 am #

    Hi Emma,
    I just wanted to let you know that your article has been really helpful to me.
    Thanks for posting.

    • Emma Burnett June 19, 2017 at 7:13 am #

      Thank you for commenting Mia. I’m glad it helped you 🙂

  4. Nikhil July 31, 2017 at 5:33 pm #

    Hi Emma,

    Thanks for this post – seems to still be helping people all these years later!

    I am trying to recruit for some focus groups to help us plan what the next version of our personal finance app should look like (

    In an ideal world we would like people who fit the following criteria to attend our focus groups:

    1. Young professionals aged 20-40 years old
    2. Have used personal finance apps before
    3. Are comfortable connecting their bank accounts to a personal finance app

    My plan so far consists of the following although is easier said than done!

    1. Hold the focus group in shared offices where these people might work
    2. Ask the community manager to send out an email (which may or may not contain a filtering survey) to everyone who works there

    Its not proving to be easy to get access to a place where these people physically are.

    Can you think of any other avenues I should be exploring?


    • Emma Burnett August 2, 2017 at 1:44 pm #

      Hi Nikhil. Rather than thinking about where they work, what about thinking of places they may hang out socially? I did one focus group in a pub (in a function room at the back). They enjoyed a beer or wine and kept talking for ages!

      • Nikhil August 3, 2017 at 4:51 pm #

        Hey Emma,

        Thanks for your response and email.

        A focus group in a pub seems like an interesting idea.

        May I ask if you mean actually recruiting people for the focus group from the people who happen to be drinking in the pub that day by walking up to them and asking them?

        I am wondering if there is any pre-screening required (aside from making sure they are not too drunk before we start the focus group :-))


      • Emma Burnett August 4, 2017 at 8:42 am #

        Hi Nikhil. No I definitely would not advise recruiting anyone who had been drinking! Lots of ethical issues with this. I meant it would be a good place to hold your focus groups (i.e getting these people to one place). In terms of recruitment, have you thought of using social media? Twitter, facebook, instagram or snapchat? I would say that would be the best place to reach out to a group that age. Also, what about contacting the local media to see if they can help? Local papers/radio often do this for free if it helps research. With pre-screening, you probably wish to collect some demographic characteristics so you can use this in your analysis. You will know what type of information would probably be helpful so get them to complete the form prior to the focus group (just before you start). If you are relating the focus group data to specific characteristics of individuals, you will need to make sure you can map each form to each person. Using their names is the obvious way, but remembering to change them to pseudonyms for reporting etc so no individual can be identifiable. Does this help? E

  5. Gretchen K Hornsby August 2, 2017 at 1:32 pm #

    Thank you so much for your article! I’m conducting focus groups for enrollment services on a college campus and am in need of fresh recruitment ideas. I held two focus groups in the spring, and after making nearly 600 phone calls, 20 students agreed to attend, but only 10 actually showed. I’m going to try your community center idea and cross my fingers it works as well for me! Quick question-what did you use for an incentive?

    • Emma Burnett August 2, 2017 at 1:39 pm #

      Hi Gretchen. Apart from lots of cake, chocolate, tea and coffee, I gave each participant £15 in cash. Good luck!

  6. Nikhil August 4, 2017 at 2:48 pm #

    Hi Emma,

    Thanks for your response.

    I think I was trying to use your tactic of holding the focus group in a place where those people already are gathered, in order to reduce the cost to them of attending, in terms of inconvenience caused.

    I could definitely try social media but I am fearful that this will be quite expensive in terms of the advertising costs and the incentive required to get someone to travel into London for the focus group.

    I have reached out to the organisers of some “meet ups” ( to see if I can partner with them in some way to get the focus groups filled.

    Thanks for the suggestions so far – and do let me know if you have any more!


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