When Online Sampling Fails You:
6 Alternatives for Finding the Right Audience

January 26, 2024

Online sample from panels have long been the go-to methodology in marketing research, offering convenience and efficiency. However, as market researchers search for more niche audiences, the limitations of online panels become apparent. Exploring alternative methods for gathering survey respondents is crucial to meet researchers’ evolving needs. Here are 6 alternatives to online panels for finding qualified survey research respondents.

  1. CATI Recruitment. Market researchers may shy away from telephone interviewing, believing it is too costly or old school. Still, the fact is, for some audiences, telephone may be the best way to reach your qualified audience and complete the survey. With this method, we can use screen sharing to show stimuli to the respondents. CATI is an excellent methodology for reaching low-income/low-education individuals who may have difficulty reading, as well as for older respondents. When respondents may not have a computer, we use telephone only (but cannot share stimuli.) CATI also works very well for B2B respondents who may not be on a panel.
  2. In-Person/Face-to-Face Recruiting. Like CATI, market researchers may believe in-person interviewing is too expensive for their audiences. But in-person is ideal when you are looking for people to complete location-specific surveys. For example, if you need to speak to people who frequent a particular restaurant, why not approach them in the restaurant? (This way, their experience of the restaurant will be fresh and not biased by memory loss.) In these cases, we simply hand the respondents an iPad and let them complete the survey on the screen. If assistance or interaction is needed, we can also have the interviewer complete the interview verbally with the individual. In-person is also an excellent methodology when there may be language barriers. For example, in India, the majority of respondents are recruited in English, which is not representative of the general population. Thus, we have completed surveys where many non-English speakers use a wide variety of other languages. Using the iPad, they can select their preferred language and automatically complete their study.
  3. Buying Lists. Remember Dun & Bradstreet and Hoovers? They are still around, offering high-quality lists of very targeted audiences. They also provide the respondents’ email and physical addresses. Admittedly, when we use these lists, we get a very low response rate (less than 1%), but we can purchase many emails and blast them out to generate a healthy sample at a very reasonable price.
  4. Mail Surveys. Yes, people will complete paper surveys they receive in the mail (see #3 above about getting physical mailing addresses.) With paper surveys, we include a $2 bill as an incentive. The reason for a $2 bill is that it is unusual and catches the respondents’ attention. Further, by sending cash, we generate an obligation for the recipient to complete the survey. After all, we’ve already paid them, so they are now responsible for earning that $2 bill!
  5. Postcard Recruiting. We also mail postcards to the qualified respondents on the lists we purchased. Each postcard includes a QR code that takes the respondent directly to the online survey. Again, this is great for a small geography where, for example, you might want to assess interest in a new service offering.
  6. Social Media Recruitment. Leveraging social platforms like Facebook or LinkedIn for respondent recruitment is ideal for identifying low-incidence respondents. We have used social media to find low-incidence consumers, such as caregivers of stage-four cancer patients (as many of them join support groups). We have also found B2B respondents through LinkedIn groups. This way we are sure that people really do have the job titles they claim to. Social is also ideal for finding respondents traditionally screened out of surveys, such as those employed in or with a family member employed in advertising, marketing, or research.

Of course, once we have found rare and unique respondents, we want to be able to recontact them for future research needs. So, there are times when respondents completing a survey are subsequently recruited to a private panel so that they are accessible to respond to future surveys.

As researchers demand more and more finely targeted survey respondents, there will be increasing demand for recruiting methods that do not rely on online panel samples. Market researchers must adapt to the changing landscape by exploring alternative sampling methods. As the industry continues to evolve, embracing a diversified and creative approach to sampling will be crucial in ensuring the continued effectiveness of market research efforts.