BACKGROUND: Recruiting young adults (ages 18-35 years) into weight gain prevention intervention studies is challenging and men are particularly difficult to reach. This paper describes two studies designed to improve recruitment for a randomized trial of weight gain prevention interventions. Study 1 used a quasi-experimental design to test the effect of two types of direct mailings on their overall reach. Study 2 used a randomized design to test the effect of using targeted messages to increase recruitment of men into the trial. METHODS: For Study 1, 60,000 male and female young-adult households were randomly assigned to receive either a recruitment brochure or postcard. Visits to recruitment websites during each mailing period were used to assess response to each mailing. Study 2 focused on postcard recruitment only. These households received either a targeted or generic recruitment postcard, where targeted postcards included the word "Men" in the headline text. Response rates to each type of card were categorized based on participant report of mailing received. RESULTS: The reach of the postcards and brochures were similar (421 and 386 website visits, respectively; P = 0.22). Individuals who received the brochure were more likely to initiate the online screener than those who received a postcard (P = 0.01). In Study 2, of those who completed the telephone screening, 60.9 % of men (n = 23) had received the targeted postcard as compared to the generic postcard (39.1 %, P = 0.30). The reverse was true for women (n = 62, 38.7 vs. 61.3 %, P = 0.08). CONCLUSIONS: These studies suggest there was little difference in the reach of postcards versus brochures. However, recipients of brochures were more likely to continue to the next stage of study participation. As expected, men's response to the weight gain prevention messages was lower than women's response; but using targeted messages appears to have modestly increased the proportion of male respondents. These studies add to the limited experimental literature on recruitment messaging and provide further indication for using targeted messages to reach underrepresented populations while providing initial evidence on the effect of mailing type on message reach. TRIAL REGISTRATION: The Study of Novel Approaches to Weight Gain Prevention was registered with ClinicalTrials.gov (identifier: NCT01183689 ) on 13 August 2010.