Recruiting online: Lessons from a longitudinal survey of contraception and pregnancy intentions of young Australian women

Recruiting participants for health surveys has become increasingly difficult, particularly where young people are concerned. Traditional recruitment practices involve methods such as postal, telephone and face-to-face invitations, which may not be compatible with the high usage and reliance on more modern forms of technology amongst younger people.

In recent years researchers have made use of social media as a means of recruiting young participants into health surveys, but it is not yet clear whether this is a cost-effective approach, or whether it can provide samples that demographically reflect the general population, particularly for longitudinal research.

In the current study, the researchers assessed the effectiveness of online recruitment methods in recruiting women aged 18-23 for the Contraceptive Use, Pregnancy Intention, and Decisions (CUPID) Study. A variety of methods were used, including Facebook advertisements and posts, Twitter, and online forums, as well as face-to-face events, distribution of promotional material, and media releases.

Over the one-year recruitment period, a total of 3,795 women were recruited to take part in the online survey, almost double the original target of 2,000. Women were recruited at an average cost of $11 per participant, substantially lower than that for the pilot version of the study, which, using mailed invitations, attracted only 54 participants at a cost of around $100 each. The sample was found to be broadly representative of 18-23 year old women in Australia in terms of demographics, with the exception of a higher proportion of women who had completed year 12 education.

While the use of multiple approaches makes it difficult to determine the success of individual strategies, Facebook appears to be a particularly effective means of recruitment, with a large daily increase in respondents observed following changes to the placement of advertisements from the sidebar to the central newsfeed.

The findings from the current study suggest that it is possible to recruit a demographically representative sample of young women using online methods, and that this can be done at a reasonable cost.

This paper generated significant interest, with an invited commentary commissioned by the American Journal of Epidemiology. In this commentary Dr Jenifer Allsworth from the University of Missouri – Kansa City praised the study design, suggesting that the study was well conducted and made an important contribution to the literature.

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Citation: Harris ML, Loxton D, Wigginton B, Lucke J. Recruiting online: Lessons from a longitudinal survey of contraception and pregnancy intentions of young Australian women. American Journal of Epidemiology, 2015. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwv006