How to find niche participants online with prescreeners and custom requests

Eleanor Edwards
|May 25, 2022

Working in researcher support, I’m often asked what my favourite part of the job is. For me, the answer is very simple - I love getting a glimpse into the research proposals of hundreds of researchers. Each query is from a driven and passionate individual figuring out how they can use our platform to succeed at their research goals. Seeing that never gets old.

The most interesting part of proposals are the samples that researchers choose to target. When I was studying psychology, a graduate student was running a linguistics study that required people who spoke Southern British English. The study filled up slowly, and was advertised for weeks, despite the fact that the university was located in the south of Britain.

Based on this experience, I assumed that gathering research samples was an unavoidably drawn-out process. And while this is often true using traditional methods, you can imagine my surprise when, in my third year, I discovered Prolific and received all of the participants I needed within 24 hours.

The joy of Prolific’s niche prescreeners

When I started working at Prolific, I soon discovered just how simple it was to gather research samples - even niche ones.

The first and simplest option is to use a selection of our pre-made prescreeners. Participants answer demographic questions, and we use their answers to create filters, which researchers can then use to narrow down our participant pool (over 130,000 active participants strong) to the sample they require.

I’m still amazed by just how specific these can get - researchers can access samples of 1700 ambidextrous video gamers, 17000 meditative online shoppers, or 1280 multilingual Spotify users living in the south of England.

Using our prescreeners is free, no matter how many you need to apply to find your perfect sample. We take pride in making sure that good research practices are available to all, not just those with the largest grant funding.

But despite our wide range of prescreeners, sometimes researchers do still come to us needing samples that we don’t currently have prescreeners for. Incidentally, this is also where a lot of my favourite stories come from.

We’ve had requests to target climate change activists, adoptive parents, and people with psychiatric assistance dogs - but once in a while we get a request that causes us to scratch our heads. One researcher wanted to target surfers, another wanted participants with a very specific musical background. My personal favourite came from a researcher who wanted Germans who were the primary grocery shopper for their household and also ate apples.

Grocery bags containing apples
Grocery bags containing apples

Creating a custom sample

Despite our array of prescreeners, we don’t currently have one related to fruit consumption. However, this doesn’t mean that these participants aren’t present on the platform, it just means they need to be found.

Researchers are very welcome to recruit a custom sample - asking participants an eligibility question in a short survey and then inviting any eligible participants on to their main survey.

Custom sample guidance is actually one of the most common types of advice we give out in researcher support, and while it does have an additional cost, this is usually no more than it would cost to use regular prescreeners on other research sites.

These custom sample requests also directly influence the shape of the product in the future. Recently we received a lot of requests from different researchers for a colourblindness prescreener. Researchers who wanted to target colourblind participants found it tricky to do so, and researchers running perception studies where colour is important found their results skewed since they couldn’t screen out colourblind participants.

The more feedback we received, the more we realised this was a problem that needed to be solved. Within a month the new screener was on the platform ready for use. The story of our cochlear implant screener is a very similar one, and we’ve also recently revised our gender and sexuality screeners based on feedback from the research community.

Working in researcher support and communicating with many researchers every day, you might think I’d get bored, or that eventually nothing would surprise me. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Seeing the types of research different people take on, getting to be a fly on the wall for so many people’s lifelong passions spread across research disciplines from psychophysics to sociolinguistics, is genuinely exciting. And if I ever start to believe I’ve seen it all, somebody’s guaranteed to come along with a more niche sample than I could have imagined.

Our prescreeners are free, recruiting a custom sample is easy, and we’re always open to new screener requests. Plus, if you have a particularly interesting sample you’d like to study, it will probably make my day. Why not come and do your research with us?

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