Using Facebook and Instagram to sample German emigrants on a nearly global scale

Migration research faces many methodological challenges. This is already true when the focus is on newcomers (immigrants) in a single or a small number of countries. A major difficulty in this regard is finding, contacting, and convincing members of the target population to participate. But what if we would even want to go further and beyond a hand full of countries to survey emigrants (say, from Germany) on a near global scale? In a recent project, Steffen Pötzschke and Bernd Weiß explored whether social networking sites might be of any help in this regard. 

Die Migrationsforschung steht vor vielen methodischen Herausforderungen. Dies gilt vor allem dann, wenn der Schwerpunkt von einschlägigen Erhebungen auf Neuankömmlingen (Immigranten) in einem einzigen oder wenigen Ländern liegt. Eine große Schwierigkeit besteht darin, Mitglieder der Zielbevölkerung zu finden, zu kontaktieren und zur Teilnahme an der Erhebung zu bewegen. Was aber, wenn wir sogar noch weiter und über eine Hand voll Länder hinausgehen wollen, um Auswanderer*innen (z.B. aus Deutschland) auf nahezu globaler Ebene zu befragen? In einem kürzlich durchgeführten Projekt haben Dr. Steffen Pötzschke und Dr. Bernd Weiß untersucht, ob Social-Networking-Sites in dieser Hinsicht hilfreich sein könnten.

DOI: 10.34879/gesisblog.2020.25

Why it is worthwhile to study German emigrants 

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the migration of Germans to other countries raised increasing interest in the media, the general public, and amongst political actors. The reality TV show Goodbye Germany! Die Auswanderer (“Goodbye Germany! The emigrants”), for example, seems to have a loyal fan base as it has been running for 14 years now. From a political and economic point of view, the emigration of highly qualified individuals is of particular interest. It constitutes a potential loss of important human capital in an era that is largely characterised by the transformation of industry-based to knowledge-based economies.1 For this reason alone, it would be good if we could better understand the individual reasons why Germans leave the country for good, who they are, and where they go to. Additional knowledge about their settlement processes and daily lives might, furthermore, provide us with a valuable point of comparison for integration research directed at immigrants in Germany.

Why it is difficult to study German emigrants

However, surveying emigrants globally or, at least in a large number of countries is a complicated endeavour. The reason for this is, firstly, that there is no coherent and easy to implement mechanism to recruit eligible individuals on a global level. Secondly, we cannot simply transfer procedures established to reach potential respondents on a national level to an international environment, as the necessary information (e.g., population registers) might not be available everywhere. Consequently, cross-national migrant surveys, this means surveys that are simultaneously conducted in various countries, regularly have to rely on different sampling strategies in them.2 This does not only come with the risk of introducing different biases in the sub-samples, complicating comparisons between them, but also tends to increase project costs, even more so if they also require the use of different modes of data collection.

This is where Social Networking Sites come in

Despite these difficulties, there are a small number of surveys that previously have studied Germans abroad.3 However, while they were generally quite successful in recruiting German emigrants in other European countries, the United States of America, and Canada, they usually had a hard time collecting information on Germans in other world regions, particularly in Africa, Latin America, and many Asian countries.

Therefore, in the German Emigrants Overseas Online Survey (GEOOS), we decided to use advertisements on Facebook and Instagram to reach our target population. Previous research allowed us to believe, that this approach could work.4 Through such advertisements, the social networking service Facebook Inc. offers the possibility to reach and, subsequently, survey emigrants on a (nearly) global level. Due to the fact that the Facebook ecosystem does not only include the social networking site (SNS) of the same name but also Instagram, different age cohorts can be reached. Of course, this holds only true for countries in which the services are accessible in the first place. Furthermore, these SNS as sampling mechanism should allow us to reach individuals who have already been living abroad for a considerable time, which previous techniques also had a hard time to do. A clear and rather obvious limitation of this approach is that it is restricted to individuals who use Facebook’s services.

For our survey, we posted German language advertisements on Facebook and Instagram. These ads invited users to follow a link which brought them to the welcome page of our questionnaire. The data collection of this project started on August 13, 2020 and ended on September 12, 2020. Our advertisement campaign targeted Germans living in any country outside of Europe. We excluded European continent for practical reasons and because, as mentioned above, the knowledge about Germans living overseas is particularly scarce. However, while we did not actively target Germans in European countries, we did not exclude them from the survey either. Indeed, they were able to participate if invited to do so by other respondents. To achieve a diverse sample, we divided emigrants’ countries of residence into 13 regions and targeted male and female Germans divided in two age-cohorts individually within these regions. This resulted in 52 subsamples for which we used individual as sets.

Sampling  German emigrants all over the world via Facebook and Instagram

During the four weeks of our survey a total of 3,809 eligible participants completed our questionnaire.5 These are persons who were either born in Germany or held German citizenship (or both), and were, at the time of the survey, living in another country than Germany. Given the sample size and using previous studies as a frame of reference, this project can be considered very successful in reaching and surveying Germans abroad. The map in Figure 1 below shows the countries our respondents were living in.

Figure 1: Number of GEOOS participants per country (countries without any reported German emigrants are colored in grey)

In total, the participants of the survey lived in 147 countries and territories around the globe. Somewhat similar to findings reported in previous studies, the largest sub-groups resided in Anglo-phone countries; more specifically, in Canada (n = 416), New Zealand (n = 359), Australia (n = 343), and the United States of America (n = 321, excluding overseas territories). However, taken together the Germans in these countries only constitute 38 percent of our sample. Indeed, nearly a quarter of the participants (n = 867) lived in Latin America and the Caribbean, 862 resided in Asian countries, and 476 in Africa, two thirds of them in Sub-Saharan countries.

These first results of our study are very encouraging. They indicate that survey sampling through social networking sites has considerable potential as a tool in emigration research.

To learn more about our project have a look at our report:
Pötzschke, S., & Weiß, B. (2020, November 26). Employing Social Networking Sites in migration research: Preliminary findings of the German Emigrants Overseas Online Survey.

You want to know more about the characteristics of our participants? You are interested in learning whether COVID-19 impacts their lives? Find out more in our next blog post [coming soon].


  1. Andreas Ette and Lenore Sauer, Auswanderung aus Deutschland. Daten und Analysen zur internationalen Migration deutscher Staatsbürger, (Wiesbaden: VS, Verl. für Sozialwiss, 2010).
  2. David Reichel and Laura Morales, “Surveying Immigrants without Sampling Frames. Evaluating the Success of Alternative Field Methods,” Comparative Migration Studies 5, no. 1 (2017),
  3. For example: Andreas Ette et al., “German Emigration and Remigration Panel Study (GERPS). Methodology and Data Manual of the Baseline Survey (Wave 1),” BiB Daten- Und Methodenberichte (Wiesbaden: Bundesinstitut für Bevölkerungsforschung, 2020),; Iris Pfeiffer and Andreas Heimer, “Gründe für die Auswanderung von Fach- und Führungskräften aus Wirtschaft und Wissenschaft” (Berlin: Prognos, 2007),
  4. Steffen Pötzschke and Michael Braun, “Migrant Sampling Using Facebook Advertisements: A Case Study of Polish Migrants in Four European Countries,” Social Science Computer Review 35, no. 5 (2017): 633–53,
  5. Please note that none of the presented individual level information stem from Facebook or Instagram but all were collected through our questionnaire. The project used Facebook and Instagram for sampling purposes only.

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