What is convenience sampling and when should I use it?

Jane Hillman
|October 24, 2023

The late cosmologist John D. Barrow once stated, “There is no reason that the universe should be designed for our convenience.” However, with respect to the universe, things are a bit different in research. Take convenience sampling, for instance.

Compared to other sampling methods, convenience sampling is a simple, easy way to gather data. Simple and easy usually make for a great combination. But it’s important to understand what convenience sampling is, so you’ll know when and when not to use it.

Knowing how to pick the best people for your research is essential, no matter which type of audience sampling you use. Learn How to Recruit High-Quality Survey Participants Online.

What is convenience sampling?

Convenience sampling is a method of audience sampling where researchers select participants through any means available, such as sending a survey link to all your email contacts or asking passers-by on a busy street to answer a few questions. In gathering an audience in this way, there is little or no regard for whether the sample will accurately represent an entire population.

Due to its convenience, this form of sampling is quite common. In fact, chances are you’ve come across convenience sampling in use on a daily basis. But you may not recognize it as such. Examples of convenience sampling include:

  • Stopping people on the street at random to ask them to complete a questionnaire
  • Sharing a survey with your network on social media
  • Free sample day at a grocery store (arguably the most delicious and best use of convenience sampling)

Convenience sampling involves finding participants to take part in your research by the easiest means possible. For this reason, convenience sampling does not produce randomly selected audience samples. However, this fact often seems counterintuitive. Imagine walking into a grocery store and choosing 10 people to take part in a survey about their shopping habits — that would make for a pretty random form of sampling, right?

Actually, no. 🤔

A random sample is where each person has an equal probability of being chosen. For example, imagine you had a class of 30 kids who all put their names into a hat. You’re going to pick one name, and that kid gets a candy bar. Each kid has an equal chance of their name being picked.

But if we go back to our grocery store example, you’re not going to spend ages walking up and down the aisles to find your participants throughout the store. Instead, you’ll probably speak to the 10 people closest to the entrance — for convenience. So, not every shopper has an equal chance of being picked for your survey.

With a basic sense of the relationship between randomness and probability, you see why random sampling in real-world research is much more complicated than previously assumed. And by contrast, it also helps us understand why, in some situations, it’s simply better to use convenience sampling.

When to use convenience sampling

Convenience sampling is practical when some data is better than no data — situations where participant availability, speed, and keeping research costs low take priority over employing precise sampling techniques.

When you have a readily available set of participants

Use convenience sampling when a bit of feedback or input can help you make a decision or vet an idea. Should you hit “send” on that sassy, incredibly long, and well-written email you’ve crafted that finally tells your boss off?

Before you do, it would be smart to use basic convenience sampling to survey anyone you work with, literally anyone available at that moment, to collect some informal yet potentially career-saving feedback on whether or not sending that email is a good idea.

When you need data, fast

Use convenience sampling when time is a factor, either when there’s a limited amount of it or when the data you need doesn’t need to remain relevant for long. 

For example, imagine you’re planning your employees’ return to the office after remote working. You need to understand how often everyone will be coming in and what sort of work they’ll be carrying out, so you can adapt your office space accordingly. You could send a survey link out in a company newsletter to help you get a feel for what your employees need to get them back in the office. Not everyone will fill it out — but the people with specific needs or concerns are more likely to, to ensure their opinions are heard.

When research costs are a factor

Use convenience sampling when you can’t afford to sample an entire population, but you still want a sense of how a new initiative will go.

Pilot programs are convenience sampling in action. For comparatively little cost, pilots provide valuable feedback on how a program will work for a large population before launching the program itself.

When not to use convenience sampling

Convenience sampling is not practical when any data used in your research needs to be definitive, representative, and unbiased.

When you want definitive results

Don’t use convenience sampling when others need to replicate your results as part of ensuring they’re correct.

Convenience sampling doesn’t rely on any rules for it to work. You grab who you can, and your research is underway. Again, that is the essence of convenience. But, by its very nature, it’s a process guaranteed to never work the same way twice.

When you need representative data

Don’t use convenience sampling when you need to be certain your sample is an accurate representation of your target audience. Convenience sampling focuses on getting research participants quickly and easily, so you can’t be sure your sample is representative of your whole audience. As a result, you won’t be able to generalize your findings across your audience — your findings will only reflect your specific participant sample.

When you need to avoid bias

Don’t use convenience sampling when you must demonstrate that your research process has corrected for potential sampling bias. 

Representative and balanced sampling methods, for example, include verifiable evidence that each is working to reduce or avoid bias. One of the costs of convenience sampling is that, when used, you have no way to prove your sampling research process was objective. Convenience sampling has the potential to result in a biased sample due to the fact the ‘convenient’ sample may only include certain types of individuals. 

Remember: Convenience sampling always comes at a cost

Different sampling methods all come with their own pros and cons. Each one is best thought of as a tool in the researcher’s toolbox, with the understanding that some tools are just easier to use than others, despite their various uses. But that doesn’t make them the right choice for every job.

That said, if you’re facing a situation where you can (and should) use convenience sampling, take just a moment to learn How to Recruit High-Quality Survey Participants Online. There’s no reason why access to top-tier research participants shouldn’t be convenient too.

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