Traditional recruiting methods typically follow a standard practice of keeping the study topic blind, or keeping a key screening criteria secret in order to weed out potential cheaters. Researchers have become skilled in drafting carefully-worded screener questions with the sole intent of beating these dreaded cheaters at their own game, and as we’ve done so the cheaters have become more skilled as well. It’s like a game of cat and mouse, and can be exhausting.
But what if we were to take a different approach? A “trust, yet verify” technique flies in the face of some traditional methods, yet can be more efficient and more effective, while simultaneously treating our participants with more respect.
How does “Trust, yet Verify” apply to recruiting? Imagine that you are looking for people who have purchased a specific widget online within the last six months. A traditional screener will likely cast a wide net, and then narrow it by asking potential participants a range of item types that they may have purchased, finally getting down to the specific widget. This may work, but is extremely time-consuming (in a day and age when screeners are getting longer, and participants have less patience than ever before.) In addition, it relies on the honesty and accurate recollection of potential participants, which carries inherent risks.
So how about just asking people up front: “Have you purchased an XYZ widget in the past six months? If so, we need you for our research study!” This will attract two types of people: (1) people who purchased the widget, and feel uniquely qualified to participate; and (2) a few people who have not purchased the widget, but want a way to make quick buck. It also avoids wasting valuable time of people who don’t qualify, but may have responded to a more general query and gone through the screening process only to be disqualified.
Next, you put them through a screening process that is quick and efficient (because they’ve already met your key criteria.) Finally, the key step: require proof of purchase. Have the potential participants email you a receipt of their purchase. Legitimate participants will have no trouble doing this, and those potential cheaters will quickly be weeded out.
We’ve used this method successfully in a range of ways, for example: to verify purchases as in the example above, to confirm subscriptions, to check job titles on LinkedIn, and to make sure the participant matches who they say they are by viewing public social media profiles. We’ve found that it dramatically increases the quality of participants and for a researcher, it’s great to go into a study with confidence that the participants have been carefully vetted. Of course, while most potential cheaters will simply make up an excuse to not provide proof (don’t believe it! disqualify them!) some will actually go to some length to continue their lie by adding said item to an online cart and then sending a screenshot of their cart, for example. By taking the time to vet people in this “proof” step, these tricks can be caught fairly easily.
Obviously if a project requires that participants not know that you are seeking people who have purchased this widget then this approach wouldn’t apply, but in most recruits there are at least some elements that can leverage this “Trust, yet Verify” approach.
It can also be a valuable step to avoid an honest participant or recruiter mistake. For example, if you want to make sure someone has just the right widget before you head into an in-home, have them send in a photo of it prior. Yes, it’s an extra step in the recruit, but is well worth it to avoid scheduling a two-hour in-home with someone who doesn’t own the relevant product.
With so much information available online, and with the increased tech-savviness of everyday participants, it only makes sense that we evolve our recruiting to keep up. So for your next project think about how you can trust, yet verify. You’ll be glad you did!