B2B user research — participant recruitment

Paul Blunden
9 min readJun 27, 2023

If you are recruiting hard to get participants, that is those with an incidence rate (IR) of below 1% then this post is for you. Hard to get participants include, for example, people with specific disabilities, people who may not have access to the research facility or who just might not be motivated to attend.

For the purpose of this article, we are going to focus on B2B (Business-to-business) user research, participants, who are a subset. That isn’t to say the other types of hard-to-get participants are not important. With an increasing focus on inclusive design, they are arguably becoming integral to how brands plan to cater for their audience. But the challenges with B2B user research participants are a subject in their own right and there are specific strategies that can help make the process of running research easier.

The waffle chart below illustrates the difficulty in recruiting for B2B research. It shows the population of the US in blue, people of working age in orange and people who work for Walmart, the largest employer in the US, in green. If we take that further and suggest that we want to interview people in the distribution center, it is an even smaller subset. If we want to interview distribution managers we are into fractions. That is an entirely different challenge to recruiting people of working age who buy fashion!

Waffle chart, that is a 10 x 10 grid of colored blocks showing the population of the USA which is 100 blocks, then the working age population which fills 61 blocks and the proportion of people who work for Walmart that fills one block
Waffle chart

What do we mean by B2B user research participants?

B2B is very different to B2C which is business to consumer. Your local grocery store sells B2C, when you as a consumer go into their business for your weekly shop. B2B is about the relationship between two businesses. For example, between a business and the bank they use, or a business and the supplier of IT services.

B2B user research participants are therefore contained within that relationship. The example above, the IT services supplier may wish to understand how they can make improvements for the people in the business that use their services. The business bank may wish to conduct research with the users of their banking system.

What makes B2B user research participants hard to get?

In research for our clients, we have interviewed delivery drivers, buyers of large format printer suppliers, business banking customers, care workers, freelancers, finance directors, Doctors, HR Directors and more. The list goes on, and what they all have in common is they are very hard to get. And it may not just be that aren’t many of them, they may be easy to identify but hard to motivate to attend.

We frequently use specialist third party participant recruitment agencies when we are organizing research. We have a large number of agencies in our database (over 50) covering all the international markets where we work. And as a rule, we generally go to at least three agencies for any individual requirement.

These agencies have large databases of candidate participants, and increasingly they use social media to find the right people. However, if the incident rate is low, the number of people that qualify for the research in their database will also be low. If we are looking for a specific job role in a specific company, it is very unlikely that they will be able to help us.

When thinking about your B2B user research recruitment, we recommend you analyze your profiles to try and get an idea of what type of recruitment problems you may have so you can formulate plans to mitigate against them. We came up with this simple A, B, C model to guide our thinking:

A = Availability

B = Benefit

C = Concerns

Availability — Are they able to participate?

Some of the reasons they may be unable to attend include:

· Their employer may not allow it

· They may work odd hours — like traders in overseas markets

· They may have very time-intensive occupations and not feel they can break away for an hour

· They may not have control of their time (think fireman, surgeon etc)

· They may not be able to accept an incentive — if they work for a regulated company for example

Benefit — What’s in it for them?

The incentives in B2B research can be a lot higher than in B2C research, but even so, they may not always be sufficient motivation to get someone to attend research. Think about how you position the research with them and try and explain the benefits. You may find the following helpful:

· Is there a learning opportunity they might find interesting? i.e., if you are doing research with something very new and the person has an innovative mindset that might be a motivator

· Are they helping someone? You might be researching a system that will change other people’s lives. That might matter to a participant.

Concerns — is there some other barrier that is making them hesitant?

When conducting B2C research, it is very likely that the participants have been involved in previous research — sometime too much! With B2B user research, the participants may have never been involved in research before. They may have questions and concerns that they don’t voice but are barriers to them joining the research. Try and think about what these might be for the type of participant you are recruiting. For example:

· Are they worried about their surroundings and how they will look when joining the research?

· Are they worried about their technical ability?

· Are they worried about what will happen to their data? This is particularly relevant in Germany.

· You want to carry out research about a system they consider to be commercially confidential

There can be all sorts of reasons why B2B user research participants are hard to get, so recognize you will need a different approach, and more time to execute it.

What strategies can we use to find B2B user research participants?

Despite the low likelihood of our recruitment agency partners being able to help us, we will still ask them. And sometimes they will be able to help. This tends to be in the areas of SME’s and in particular small businesses where they are owner run, i.e., sole traders.

Even then my advice is that you need to screen very carefully because we always get a proportion of participants that don’t actually fit the profile. In B2C research we recruit [say] 10 for 8, whereas in B2B we would recruit at least 12 for the same 8. That is a rule of thumb, and you need to flex it based on the profile.

A bigger problem, that has happened to us more than once, is the recruiter says it is feasible when they are quoting for it and find out later it wasn’t. By the time they find out we are heading toward moderation dates and suddenly the entire project is at risk. So be aware that whilst big panel providers can and will do a proper feasibility check, some of the smaller recruiters will just have a discussion amongst themselves and that isn’t always accurate.

If we are unable to use third-party recruitment agencies, we have to find other ways to identify and recruit B2B participants ourselves. That generally means a lot more time, effort and money. Here are three strategies we have used:

Ask the client to recruit

This only works if the research is taking place with your (if you are an agency) clients’ customers. Even then it is not a simple solution, particularly if your client doesn’t do a lot of research and so isn’t set up to recruit their customers. If they are willing, we have learnt the following about end clients:

· They often overestimate how many people they can recruit

· They often underestimate how long it will take them to recruit

· They don’t always recruit the right profiles

· The don’t always know who their customers are

If you do go down this route, the client needs to make an introduction to you as an agency. Cold reach out from the agency directly will often end up in the junk folder or be categorized as junk by the recipient.

Use LinkedIn

I mentioned earlier that we had recruited delivery drivers for a project. In fact, it was delivery drivers, bus drivers and bus depot managers for an electric vehicle manufacturer. None of the recruiters could find any of these profiles and the only one who did found one person and they turned out to be fraudulent.

What we did was to pool the budget for the third-party recruiter with the budget for incentives and create a larger incentive pot. We then used this to reach out on LinkedIn and entice people into the research. As mentioned earlier in our A/B/C model, this wasn’t just about money, and we also used the lure of finding out a funky new electric vehicle control system.

At a practical level, we found that if I made the contact, with the title of CEO on my profile, I was more successful, compared with someone with a more junior or less meaningful title (to someone not in research). You also need to take into account how many people LinkedIn will let you InMail or connect with and at what level. There is a lot to it and suffice to say a paid account is better than an unpaid one.

Use a proxy!

If you really can’t get your exact profile into the research, you can use a proxy. Where this is most effective is say for a small brand or a brand with less market share compared to others. Rather than finding users of their own system who may be so infrequent that they are almost impossible to find, recruit B2B user research participants who are customers or users of the larger market share brands. They may not be perfect, but they may be better than nothing at all.

As for referrals

If you do manage to find the right people, ask them if they know of other possible candidate participants. Lots of people no other people in their profession or function and they may be happy to refer them to you or you to them. You can even offer a finder’s fee to encourage them to help.

Adaptations when recruiting B2B user research participants

Running B2B user research isn’t just about finding the participants, we can also make adaptations to how the research is organized. For cost and efficiency reasons, most research is organized around a tight moderation schedule. User research with 10 participants is normally scheduled 5 sessions per day over 2 days.

With B2B user research, we have to understand that our participants may need more flexibility. They may experience short notice cancellations, if they are called into a meeting for example. We have to treat them a little bit like VIP’s and accept that getting to speak to them at all is a rare opportunity that we should make the most of.

The strategies we can use here include:

Session length:

Allow flexibility in the session length. 15 minutes with the right person is better than 60 minutes with the wrong person or nothing at all.

Schedule:

Allow flexibility in when the session takes place. Allow for evening or weekend sessions, allow for short notice availability, plan to be ready when they are.

Platform or device:

If they can’t attend a lab, or join a remote session, what about a phone call? What about an answer phone exchange? What about a WhatsApp message conversation? Think about how you can generate the insight in a way that is easy for your hard-to-get participant to engage with.

Summary and International considerations

I have shared some of the ways we approach running B2B user research with hard-to-get participants. There is a lot more I could have written about, and I have only briefly touched on what we have to think about when running research internationally. But will close by sharing a couple of key international considerations.

It may seem obvious, but good translation is really important. Going back to my point about treating B2B user research participants as VIP’s, it is really important that if you are doing multi-market research you invest in good translation. On multiple occasions we have been asked to run multi-market research in English because the prototype wasn’t translated. This has numerous consequences such as:

· The findings can be irrelevant because of the low level of comprehension

· The participant may become disenfranchise by the brand

· The opportunity to engage your important customers has been missed

Another obvious one is time zones. If you are doing research across different time zones and your researchers are not in the participants time zone you may have a few planning problems. It can work in your favor if, for example, you’re running research out of the US into the UK market, and they are evening sessions. But more often than not, the planning consequences of time zone differences can be overlooked.

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Paul Blunden

Paul is Founder and CEO of UX24/7 and has spent more than 20 years in UX and Design Research.