Costs and Efficiency of Online and Offline Recruitment Methods: A Web-Based Cohort Study
BACKGROUND: The Internet is widely used to conduct research studies on health issues. Many different methods are used to recruit participants for such studies, but little is known about how various recruitment methods compare in terms of efficiency and costs.
OBJECTIVE: The aim of our study was to compare online and offline recruitment methods for Internet-based studies in terms of efficiency (number of recruited participants) and costs per participant.
METHODS: We employed several online and offline recruitment methods to enroll 18- to 45-year-old women in an Internet-based Danish prospective cohort study on fertility. Offline methods included press releases, posters, and flyers. Online methods comprised advertisements placed on five different websites, including Facebook and Netdoktor.dk. We defined seven categories of mutually exclusive recruitment methods and used electronic tracking via unique Uniform Resource Locator (URL) and self-reported data to identify the recruitment method for each participant. For each method, we calculated the average cost per participant and efficiency, that is, the total number of recruited participants.
RESULTS: We recruited 8252 study participants. Of these, 534 were excluded as they could not be assigned to a specific recruitment method. The final study population included 7724 participants, of whom 803 (10.4%) were recruited by offline methods, 3985 (51.6%) by online methods, 2382 (30.8%) by online methods not initiated by us, and 554 (7.2%) by other methods. Overall, the average cost per participant was €6.22 for online methods initiated by us versus €9.06 for offline methods. Costs per participant ranged from €2.74 to €105.53 for online methods and from €0 to €67.50 for offline methods. Lowest average costs per participant were for those recruited from Netdoktor.dk (€2.99) and from Facebook (€3.44).
CONCLUSIONS: In our Internet-based cohort study, online recruitment methods were superior to offline methods in terms of efficiency (total number of participants enrolled). The average cost per recruited participant was also lower for online than for offline methods, although costs varied greatly among both online and offline recruitment methods. We observed a decrease in the efficiency of some online recruitment methods over time, suggesting that it may be optimal to adopt multiple online methods.