Recruitment and Partner Participation in Online Relationship Education

By Sarah Hokanson

 Bottom-Line First: Different methods of recruitment for online relationship interventions brought in participants with different individual and relationship characteristics. In addition, individuals whose partners did not participate together in the online program differed in individual and relationship characteristics from those who had partners did participate.

In recent years, the internet has become a more popular delivery system for relationship education (RE) programs. At the same time, online recruitment for these interventions has become more important. How we go about recruiting participants can have a substantial impact on the participants that take our programs. Online recruitment gives us the opportunity to reach more people and to be more intentional in finding the people who can benefit most from a relationship education program.

The current study[1] looks at how recruitment strategies and requirements for partner participation impact who enrolls and who does not enroll in online relationship distress programs. Using various means of recruitment, researchers gathered participants for OurRelationship (OR), an online couple relationship education (CRE) program designed especially for couples experiencing moderate levels of distress. Of the 2,512-person sample, 46% were married and 28% were engaged; 53.5% were white, 25.3% were African American, and 9.2% were Hispanic; and 87% had a relationship satisfaction score in the distressed range. Data were gathered on relationship characteristics, individual characteristics, and recruitment method. All participants were asked to invite their partner to sign up to take the OR program together. (If partners did not sign up and take the enrollment survey, they could not participate in the couple-oriented intervention.)

Here is a brief summary of key findings:

  • Of the participants, 62% heard about the OR program through an online search, 13% through social media, 7% from an online list or forum, 6% by word of mouth, 4% from Amazon’s Mturk, and 3% from a community agency.
  • Participants who found the program through an online search or social media (75%), such as Facebook, reported lower relationship satisfaction, higher breakup potential, higher communication conflict, higher psychological distress, and more anger when compared with participants from other recruitment methods.
  • Participants recruited from Mturk had higher levels of individual and relationship functioning, and were more educated, older, and had longer relationships than other participants.
  • 52% of the sample had partners who did not complete the screening (so they were unable to participate in the OR program).
  • Individuals who had partners who did not complete the enrollment screening survey reported higher levels of breakup potential, physical aggression, communication conflict, psychological distress, anger, and lower levels of education.

These findings show the effectiveness of online recruitment and the differences between various recruitment methods. They also show the significant differences between those who have partners participate together in the program and those who do not. These findings have important implications for effectively recruiting participants and reaching the populations that can benefit most from relationship education programs.

  • To incentivize or not to incentivize? Differences in relationship quality among different recruitment groups may be in part due to whether participation was incentivized. Participants who actively searched or clicked on an ad were not given an incentive to participate in the program, which suggests that participants were more interested in the program itself and likely more motivated. These participants showed more negative individual and relationship characteristics, suggesting they may have had greater need of help in their relationships. Providing incentives to join relationship education programs may not be the best strategy for recruitment because it does not necessarily draw in the people who will benefit most from the program.
  • Effective advertising is key. Online recruitment is effective for online interventions. Internet searchers and social media ads brought in the majority of participants in this study, which shows that good advertising is particularly important for recruitment. The article authors emphasized that it is important for program developers to create websites with search-engine optimization in mind, an effective pay-per-click advertising strategy (which is not very expensive), and targeted social media advertising. Effective advertising will help those who can benefit most from RE easily find our programs.
  • Work on encouraging partner participation. Many people are interested in participating in online CRE programs (and they reach a needy population), but this study suggests that half the time their partners are not interested. Research so far has found that RE programs are more effective for couples who attend together compared to those individuals who attend without their partner. As relationship educators, perhaps we can come up with creative ways to assist participants in getting their partner to participate in the program.
  • An important role for individually oriented RE. We shouldn’t forget about individuals who want to participate in our programs but their partners do not. Excluding participants whose partners will not take the program together restricts participation in RE programs. And according to the measures in this study, the individuals whose partners were unwilling or unable to participate in the program may be among those who most need help (improving their relationship, coping with challenges, or making hard decisions about the future of the relationship). Innovative program developers and educators should think about how to improve their programs to better serve this unique population of participants. A few programs for individuals have been developed including Within Our Reach[2] and a version of OurRelationship for individuals.[3] While couple-focused programs can have a strong impact on both partners, individual programs also are showing positive outcomes, at least for individual functioning and well-being. Program developers and educators need to do the hard work of finding ways for these individually oriented RE programs to unilaterally improve relationship outcomes, as well.



[1] Barton, A. W., Hatch, S. G., & Doss, B. D. (2020). If you host it online, who will (and will not) come? Individual and partner enrollment in a web-based intervention for distressed couples. Prevention Science, 21, 830–840.

[2] Rhoades, G. K., & Stanley, S. M. (2011). Using individual-oriented relationship education to prevent family violence. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 10, 185–200.

[3] Nowlan, K. M., Roddy, M. K., & Doss, B. D. (2017). The online OurRelationship program for relationally distressed individuals: A pilot randomized controlled trial. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 6, 189–204.