Reaching Hard-to-Sample Populations

October 3, 2023

Findings Needles in Haystacks: Your Guide to Reaching Hard-to-Sample Populations

There’s an increasing demand to sample niche populations, meaning that researchers must find sampling needles in population haystacks. As a result, we’ve found (and created) several tools and techniques for completing these samples.

There are several reasons why audiences are hard to find:

  • The universe is small. Small populations often exist in B2B research. If, for instance, you’re targeting Fortune 500 CFOs, there are only 500 of them, right? Sometimes niche education levels or specific roles turn your targets into needles., Say you only have 3,700 U.S. neurosurgeons to begin with. After you factor in other screening criteria and cooperation rates, you might only have a handful to actually talk to. Consumer audiences may also become needles, too, especially when considering low-incidence categories or demographic or market
  • Case Study: Getting Creative with Niche Geographies

    Topic. Public transit attitudes and usage linking large metros to small, outlying suburbs.

    Approach. Online survey.

    Target. 600 Homeowners who voted in the last election and who live in a small county.

    Issue. Started with a pool of 50,000 residences. After incorrect list info, screening, and reminders, the available pool was reduced to 15,000, insufficient to reach n=600.

    Solution. We tapped into other list sources, such as the county’s water utility email list, which increased our available pool and allowed us to reach the target of n=600.

  • Limited or no targeting. Sometimes the needle is that panels or lists simply can’t identify, inventory, or disclose (e.g., HIPPA privacy or other disclosure concerns) certain niche audiences. For instance, if your target is patients with a rare ailment or a tiny pool of professionals that appear on few radars, you will probably have difficulty reaching them.
  • Hard-to-reach. Sometimes, your needles may be almost impossible to contact, due to geography, social isolation, type of work, industry or position, work schedules, language barriers, or gatekeepers. While they are definitely in the haystack, there may not be a way to contact them.
  • Reluctance to cooperate. While this is true of all audiences, it may be worse for some needles like high-net-worth individuals, recent immigrants to the U.S., those with may have issues/ambiguity, or have cultural sensitivities.

Case Study: Cultural Sensitivity

Topic. Feminine hygiene in the Middle East.

Approach. Online survey, but later substituted with intercept surveys.

Target. Females between the ages of 18 and 55.

Issue. Females were prohibited from taking surveys online, were reluctant to speak to male interviewers, and would not complete interviews about this topic in the presence of males of any age.

Solution. They partnered with an on-location field company that sent female interviewers to interview qualified respondents at their residences at certain times.

Tools for Hard-to-Reach Samples

Choosing the optimal approach(es) for your particular situation requires creativity and flexibility. And it starts with understanding why an audience is difficult to recruit. Here are some of the available sampling tools:

  1. Partnering with Panel Companies. If one panel can’t fill your quota, it may be necessary to partner with several panels. Panels differ in how and where they source respondents, and some panels may be a better fit for your project than others. Additionally, some panel companies have a large, cooperative network and know which panels have quality respondents and which might best fit your project.
  2. Partner with other Organizations. For instance, foundations and charitable organizations may have lists of donors and members that you can contact to do research. Social Media groups and advertising (Craig’s List, Facebook, LinkedIn for B2B) can also be great sources for hard-to-reach samples.
  3. Referrals. Sometimes just asking respondents to refer suitable colleagues or acquaintances is an effective tool for recruiting and augmenting feasibility. Always offer a referral fee as an incentive, but also make it clear that referrals must qualify just as the referrer did to earn the fee.
  4. Increased Incentives. A fair incentive is always appropriate, especially when recruiting hard-to-reach samples. Be ready to adjust your incentive upwards to attract qualified respondents.
  5. On-site Recruiting. Sometimes, you might need to recruit your hard-to-reach sample at unusual venues like trade shows, fairs, or other events that draw the people you are looking for. Depending on the venue and number of attendees, you might also conduct your survey/interviews on-site.
  6. Probability Sampling. It may be possible to start with a probability sample, and then re-screen to find your hard-to-find sample. For example, we were asked to find people who might be interested in purchasing real estate in Cancun. While we could easily find people who had traveled recently to Cancun, it was much harder to find people who might want to purchase property there. So we screened initially for travelers and then rescreened that group for their interest in buying property.
  7. Hybrid Surveys. A government client proposed using mail to conduct a large representative survey among 7,500 U.S. households. Now mail surveys used to be an economical way to sample households. Not anymore. With a less than 1% response rate, materials, postage, and labor, the price tag came to a cool $2.6 million just for data collection. We recommended a combination of online and telephone for that project instead, reducing the cost to $500,000.

Learning to Pivot

Finding needle respondents in sample haystacks requires flexibility, creativity, and non-traditional trial-and-error approaches. It requires managing client expectations about costs, timeframes, and representativeness. With little or no room to spare, hard-to-reach samples require stringent validation and verification to ensure that your valuable and finite respondents are indeed the right targets in the first place.

When it comes to hard-to-reach samples, we’ve been there and done that successfully, and we’re always glad to see how we might reach your sampling needles in population haystacks! Contact Symmetric today