Experiences from the Dark Side of Participant Recruitment

The Do's and Don'ts of Cold Calling for Research

We’ve all been there. You answer the phone to be met by a random person trying to sell you things you don’t want or don’t need. It can be a nuisance, and if you’re anything like us, such calls swiftly conclude with something to the effect of “please take me off your contact list”—and that’s just if you’re feeling polite! 

You can imagine our horror of being faced with the task of becoming that very cold caller in the name of research. But that is exactly what we had to do to broaden our network of research participants during the first phase of our data collection. Along the way, we learnt that there are effective ways of taking a cold calling approach without falling head-first into the category of being a total nuisance. Don’t believe us? Read on!

With some preparation, practice, and patience, reaching out to prospective participants over the phone can be a great way to engage with new people, develop new contacts, and go beyond convenient sampling in your data collection. Here are our top ten tips to help other researchers feel more confident about hitting the phones.

1. Curate a Tailored List of Prospective Contacts

When refining the scope of those you intend to contact, we found it useful to consider our target audience in relation to our research questions. For the Hipster Project, our target recruitment audience centred around software developers, agile methods, and the Health IoT space. Striking a balance between narrowing your focus and not over-limiting your search can be tricky. To help us, we devised a matrix for prioritising which properties were most important to us with regards to prospective participants (Agile? Health? IoT?) and began to curate our list from these foundations. To kick off our search, we consulted numerous online articles featuring lists of companies and start-ups in relevant fields. We also looked at past events such as tech expos and conferences related to Health IoT to see lists of exhibitors that we might potentially contact.

2. Give Your Project a Face!

If your project has some visibility in terms of an online presence through social media, it can be a good way of reassuring prospective participants that you are a team of legitimate people doing legitimate research. Now everyone has Google at their fingertips, it’s likely the people you talk to on the phone will look you and your project up rather swiftly. Before calling any companies on our list we did these three things: 

  • Set up a Twitter account for our project.
  • Ensured our research team was visible on our main project webpage (yes, photos!).
  • Got active on Twitter, LinkedIn, PETRAS, SPRITE+ and other channels in relation to our research and our call for participants.

3. Know Your Audience: It’s All About the Detail

One of the easiest mistakes to make is to dive right in and start phoning companies left right and centre without taking the time to do some prior preparation. I learnt this the hard way. After my first couple of waffly and awkward phone calls, I changed tack. A little bit of preparation before a call goes a long way. For me, this meant finding out a bit more about the companies we were planning to call by having a closer look at their websites, finding out about case studies of work they have done, products they have developed or projects they have been involved in. For each prospective contact, I made sure to have noted down one or two examples of their projects or products that were relevant to our area of research. Being able to name-drop such examples into your phone conversation not only helps with the flow of discussion, but also demonstrates that you have put in some time to learn about who they are and what they do; and that you have actively taken an interest in their specific company and want to work with them. Remember, nobody likes to feel they are just one name on a long and impersonal contact list!

4. Know Your Pitch

Having a short and snappy elevator pitch about what your project is and what it is seeking to do is important. This can be the difference between someone passing your call on to a specific department or getting the proverbial brush-off. One of the key things to get across in your pitch is the bottom line that all prospective participants really want to know: what’s in it for them? While it’s important not to over-promise just to get people on board, it is just as important not to undersell the potential impacts of your work and the value that participants will get from engaging with your project. 

5. Stay Organised!

Keeping track of who you have contacted can be tricky, particularly if there are multiple people in your team also contacting others. We kept a simple database of all the companies we contacted, with columns to document information on when they were contacted, how they were contacted (email, phone, online form), responses, who to follow up with etc. This allowed us to keep track of where we were up to and what progress was being made.

6. Conquer the Fear of the Phone

Phoning strangers can be a daunting prospect at the best of times. Phoning strangers and trying to convince them to participate in your research, well, that can be a new level of daunting – at least it was for me. But I realised quite quickly that most of that was down to the unknowns of the situation: not knowing who’s going to answer (a receptionist, a CEO, a company Founder?); not knowing how they would react to the call (will they hang up or think I’m wasting their time?); and not knowing exactly how I was going to persuade them our research was of value to them (see tips 3 and 4!). 

These fears, I’m pleased to say, were dispelled quite swiftly. I can report that nobody hung up the phone in annoyance (phew!). In fact, we found that people were generally quite happy to have a chat about our project. The variety of companies we reached out to meant that, naturally, we got a variety of people answering our calls – from receptionists, assistants, sales teams and customer engagement personnel, to CEOs, directors, and founders. The trick here is to be well prepared for any eventuality and to tailor your ‘pitch’ depending on who you got on the other end of the phone.

7. Disappointment is Likely, Frustration is Guaranteed

Working through a list of contacts can be a long and frustrating process. Between being on hold forever and bogus claims of “someone will get back to you”, it can end up being disheartening, making it difficult to keep the motivation alive. Aside from having a lot of coffee on standby, the best tip here is to have patience and to persevere. While yes, it will feel disappointing at times to have a string of calls that go nowhere, once you have that first good call where someone is actively interested and agrees to take next steps, it becomes a lot easier to stick at it. Have patience!

8. Online Submission Forms Aren’t Always a Waste of Time

Here’s a surprise. You may find, as we did, that some of the companies on your list do not have telephone numbers or email addresses on their websites, but only online submission forms. Filling these in might feel like a pointless task, but it is worth doing. When it comes to what to write in the form, our approach was to keep it short and to the point but tailored adequately to each specific company. While we didn’t get a lot of responses from these forms, we did get a few; and some of the responders are now engaging with our project as participants! 

9. Follow-up Meetings Can Help Cinch the Deal

A phone call alone may not be enough to get people on board with your project, but it’s certainly a good start to get people interested. We found that many of the people we spoke to were interested in our research but wanted to know a little more before committing to anything. Being active in setting up a follow up meeting, ideally via Teams or Zoom, is a good next step. We did this with numerous people and found it a very beneficial process. Not only does it allow you to engage more personally with your prospective participant, but it also gives you the opportunity to build a closer understanding between both sides about your research, their company, and to explore potential synergies between the two. 

10. Be Agile!

Iteration. It’s at the heart of our project’s ethos, and it’s something we are implementing throughout our research methods too. And that’s no different for our calling strategy. Those first few phone calls are a bit like the deployment phase of a new piece of software. You’ve planned, designed, and developed your calling strategy, you’ve tested it (perhaps by running it by your colleagues), and then you deploy it in your first few calls. There will almost certainly be bugs, and it won’t be perfect! Review, revise, and deploy again! With practice, and by amending your approach as you go along by reading what is working effectively in your approach to calls and what is not, you will refine your ability to engage with people on the phone about your research and hopefully pull in some new contacts for your project in the process.

We hope these tips give you some inspiration to pick up the phone and get talking to potential research participants about your work. 


- Anna

Image credit: iStock/Rifka Hayati