Researching Hard-to-Reach Audiences

August 11, 2022

Researchers are being asked, and are asking themselves, to provide representation across race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity in our studies. PSB started exploring this issue in 2017 with our work on the US Census Campaign. More recently, PSB Insights partnered with the Pew Research Center to conduct a large-scale qualitative study with Asian Americans from 18 origin groups to understand their experiences and perspectives. From these research initiatives, several key lessons emerged about conducting research with smaller, under-represented, and hard-to-reach audiences.

PSB Insights supported Pew Research Center in reaching Asian American participants for its largest qualitative focus group analysis yet. The research, available here, explores – in their own words – the experiences and views of Asian Americans via a data essay and documentary. Conducted in the fall of 2021, the analysis included 66 focus groups with a total of 264 participants, which were organized into 18 distinct Asian ethnic origin groups. Discussions took place in 18 languages and were moderated by members of the participants’ own ethnic groups. We spoke to Asian Americans with a range of household incomes, those born both inside and outside of the United States, and individuals from the following origin groups: Bangladeshi, Bhutanese, Burmese, Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Hmong, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Nepalese, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Taiwanese, Thai and Vietnamese.

PSB Insights utilized our experience from the 2020 US Census campaign to inform our approach to reach these small and sometimes hard-to-reach audiences. A few key lessons from both studies emerged:

  1. Provide an “in-culture” moderator, especially if the topic is about race, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity. In-culture moderators can help the broader research team understand cultural nuances from development of the research objectives to analyzing the research for insights. Having an in-culture researcher can help to build trust and encourage participants to be more open in their responses from the start. Don’t have an in-culture researcher available? High quality moderation can be taught (we know, we’ve done it multiple times!).
  2. Go into the communities. If you have a smaller group or a group that’s harder to reach, traditional recruiting methods will likely fail. We worked with our recruiting partner GC Global for the Pew Research Center study to get creative; visiting churches and local communities, establishing relationships with local community leaders, and bringing people in via direct connections with recruiters.
  3. Remove the “sludge.” Make it easy for respondents to participate, even if it means it’s harder for the research team. When we conducted in-person focus groups for the U.S. Census, we chose central locations with easy access to public transportation that were already familiar to participants (e.g., local community centers). For the Pew Research Center Asian American research, we conducted it all online via a portal that was easy for any respondent to visit via mobile or web. And always provide any documents both in-language and in English to ensure your participants are well-informed and feel confident in their participation.
  4. Start with the history. If the goal is to better understand a respondent’s lived experience, we recommend starting at the beginning. Talking about high school experiences or first experiences in the U.S. was a great way to make respondents feel connected and comfortable while we learned more about them. It was a useful base before moving into heavy topics such as stereotyping, discrimination and violence.
  5. Don’t assume identity. One of the goals of this research was to go beyond the monolith of “Asian American” and understand in what scenarios and environments participants identify as “Asian,” “Asian American,” “Hmong,” or “Hmong American.” Everyone has their own language around how they describe themselves and it is important to make participants feel seen and heard as they are.
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