The LGBT Health & Development Program

Research Blog—Recruitment and Retention with YMSM

Posted on June 3rd, 2016 by Melissa in Featured, Research Blog. No Comments

Written by Melissa Mongrella, Research Study Assistant and Retention Rockstar.

Study coordinator handing flyer to research participant

Image credit: Roky Truong, IMPACT Program

The past few years have seen an increase in HIV prevention research – from biomedical innovations to the implementation of multimodal models at the population level [1]. However, barriers to recruitment and retention among young men who have sex with men (YMSM), particularly YMSM of color, are a common and understudied challenge in HIV prevention and sexual minority health research [2]. An online study of MSM between 18 to 35 years old found that while 92% of participants agreed to complete a follow-up survey and provided an email address, only 21% of those who were eligible returned to complete the survey [3]. Additionally, Black and Latino MSM were less likely to complete their follow-up survey, indicating underrepresentation in follow-up data [3]. This blog post aims to include some tips from the IMPACT Program for improving recruitment and retention in studies of YMSM.


With the rise of the Internet as a venue to meet potential sex partners, it can also double as a medium for HIV prevention materials and as a recruitment site. Online spaces, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Grindr, can be useful for recruiting via targeted ads that link to short eligibility screeners.

We have found that people who fill out the screener with both a phone number and email address are more likely to respond to our first or second contact attempts. Additionally, specifying the venue where they signed up, our organization, and the study name in our initial contact helped to both legitimize our study and remind the potential participant that they had signed up – rather than thinking we were spam.

Example Message: Good afternoon, this is Melissa from Northwestern University. You signed up on Instagram to get more information about one of our research studies. Do you have time to chat about it further?

Research study coordinator sitting at table conducting interview with study participant

Image credit: Roky Truong, IMPACT Program


While there are numerous retention approaches, the most effective strategy has been our ability to connect with our participants as people, rather than just research subjects. Rather than knowing only when their follow-up surveys are due, we take note of significant life events, like birthdays or school commitments, or particular contextual factors, like their housing situation. We also attempt to assess why they participate in research. This type of connection happens because we build rapport and have a responsive staff who can accommodate participant needs as much as possible, whether it means squeezing in a same-day participant or helping with transportation tips.

Example Message: You said this week is finals week – good luck on your exams! I can reach out next week to see if we can set up an appointment during your spring break.

Ultimately, your population dictates your recruitment and retention strategy. Especially for YMSM, these efforts may be difficult and you may encounter many challenges related to participant’s own life stressors. Understanding your population is the best way to improve recruitment and retention in longitudinal studies. The reward for this hard work is not only a successful study, but also representative and quality data from which to improve future generations of health.

Like this article? Read more on our Youth Blog and Family Blog.
Interested in participating in research? Find out if you are eligible.
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1.    Padian, N. S., et al. (2011). HIV prevention transformed: the new prevention research agenda. Lancet, 378(9787), 269-78.
2.    Khosropour, C. M., Johnson, B. A., Ricca, A. V., & Sullivan, P. S. (2013). Enhancing Retention of an Internet-Based Cohort Study of Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM) via Text Messaging: Randomized Controlled Trial. J Med Internet Res, 15(8):e194. doi: 10.2196/jmir.2756
3.    Khosropour, C. M., & Sullivan, P.S. (2011). Predictors of Retention in an Online Follow-up Study of Men Who Have Sex With Men. J Med Internet Res, 13(3):e47. doi: 10.2196/jmir.1717


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