Designing Effective Social Media Clinical Trial Recruitment Campaigns in 2023
Social media has become an integral part of how people around the world communicate and receive information. Even in clinical research, social media clinical trial recruitment has become a crucial aspect of recruitment strategies. It was reported that 4.59 billion people use social media, with YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram leading the way. With such potential for reaching a wide audience, it can be an excellent strategy for clinical researchers and trial sponsors to engage with patients and launch clinical trial recruitment campaigns on social media.
Why recruit patients using social media?
In the USA, 69% of the adult population is active on Facebook alone. Add to that the equally impressive usage statistics for other platforms like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, and it becomes clear that social media presents extensive opportunities for patient engagement.
Social media is a viable clinical trial recruitment tool because there are nearly endless ways to reach your target audience. Through social media, you can refine your search for the right patient demographic, reach a wider audience, and continually improve your ads and recruitment efforts in response to user feedback – something that was not possible with traditional recruitment methods.
From the other side, patients looking for clinical trials may conveniently come across relevant recruitment ads on platforms they use regularly, and they are also provided with new ways of searching for trials that are recruiting for their condition and/or in their area.
In other words, it can be said that social media opens up new channels of exposure to information and two-way communication between researchers and patients.
Three important considerations when recruiting for clinical trials on social media
If you want to launch social media recruitment campaigns on social media platforms, there are important considerations to keep in mind. Follow these three tips as starting points to ensure your campaign is both effective and sensitive to patient privacy and needs:
1. Understand your patients and target demographic
The most important step when building a social media clinical trial recruitment strategy is to understand your audience. In order for recruitment advertising to be effective, it must resonate with prospective participants, which means that the message should convey an understanding of their condition and experience.
Try to get an idea of how people living with the condition or illness speak about their situation, what it’s like for them to live with their condition, what they may feel is missing in terms of treatments, and where they tend to go for support or to share with others in similar situations. This information will help you design a campaign that speaks to a need or offers relevant potential benefits for participants, while also being sensitive and respectful.
Keep minority and underrepresented groups in mind as well, and consider how the study could be made more attractive and/or accessible to them. There are various dedicated forums and support groups on social media platforms where people with specific conditions can exchange information and connect with others experiencing similar situations. These spaces provide a valuable resource for clinical researchers to understand how those with a given condition feel and speak about their situation, and thereby may help them to design campaigns in a way that is empathetic and sensitive to the prospective participants’ feelings and needs.
Choose the right platform
Next, make note of where your target audience is present online. For example, if your target demographic is above the age of 60, statistically they are more likely to be active on Facebook than on Instagram. Beyond checking general statistics, try to narrow it down further. Are there specific Facebook groups related to the condition being targeted in your study? Are there major influencers who speak openly about their condition? This type of information will provide clues about the best platforms to focus your recruitment campaign on.
2. Internal vs. external management of social media recruitment campaigns
An extensive amount of work goes into social media clinical trial recruitment campaigns. Be realistic about your in-house capabilities and the capacity of your staff to absorb the tasks of designing and managing the recruitment advertising campaign. If you are launching ads across multiple platforms, social media advertising can become even more complex. If you don’t have a dedicated recruitment team, it may be necessary to hire additional personnel since the campaign also needs to be monitored after its launch, and ideally you will begin to build upon prior experiences in order to improve your future recruitment efforts.
Contracting an agency
Another way to go about this is to contract an advertising agency specializing in clinical research or a dedicated clinical trial patient recruitment agency. Working with an external partner in this regard allows you to leverage their expertise and specialized knowledge, which may often lead to improved results. The advantages of this option include faster start-up time and turn-around, specialized experience that can help you translate your ideas into action, and expert consultation throughout your campaign.
Social media recruitment advertising will factor into your recruitment budget, so it will be useful to establish a budget beforehand and estimate the costs of various potential setups:
- Dedicated internal team, with or without tools provided by external vendors
- Full outsourcing to a specialized provider
- Mix between the two - e.g., a small internal team liaising with a recruitment agency
The last option may be particularly attractive, as the internal team who is closely familiar with the core operations can act as a dedicated liaison representing the sponsor, while the bulk of the campaign’s management and technical considerations are left to a recruitment team, who can also provide professional advice and feedback as the campaign moves forward.
3. Plan for campaign monitoring and adjustments
A social media clinical trial recruitment campaign can be seen as a living entity. There is extensive research and planning involved in its design, but it also requires consistent attention and monitoring after launch. Prospective participants should be clicking through to landing pages that are clear and informative, but they should also be able to contact the sponsor in a timely manner to clarify any doubts or simply to get more information. Maintaining open contact channels throughout the campaign is important.
Establish and monitor recruitment targets
Almost all social media advertising platforms provide detailed advertising metrics, including impressions, clicks, reach, and total engagement. By establishing recruitment targets for your campaign prior to its launch, you can monitor these metrics and compare them to your targets in order to quickly identify when changes should be made and what might need to be changed. For example, you may observe that specific messages or pictures aren't performing as well as expected, and then refine the message by incorporating feedback you received in the form of comments. One of the main benefits of social media advertising is how simple it is to pause and modify ads. Remember to select from amongst creative that was approved by the IRB during your planning and design phase.
Patient feedback and engagement
Another crucial part of social media campaigns is collecting patient feedback and deciding how to respond. It is possible to get direct engagement from the audience via replies, comments, and DMs. Keep a tab on how the audience responds and create future campaigns based on the feedback you receive. Keep in mind that negative comments can quickly create ‘storms,’ so it may be smart to have a plan in case this occurs. The best way to combat such problems is likely to take preemptive measures – the messaging you use for clinical trial campaigns should be culturally appropriate, sensitive, and fine-tuned.
Three social media clinical trial recruitment challenges and solutions for recruiting patients efficiently
There are some common challenges in clinical trial patient recruitment and enrollment that can affect your ability to reach recruitment targets within scheduled timelines. Here we will look at 3 common recruitment challenges facing clinical trial sponsors and propose potential solutions to each of these problems.
Challenge 1: Use of social media poses risks to patient privacy and trial integrity
Leveraging social media to recruit patients for scientific studies raises ethical issues. Most of these worries are centered around confidentiality, privacy, and information transparency problems, as there is real potential for abusing and/or exposing private, personal health information. Although it is the responsibility of each user to recognize the implications of sharing their personal information through social media sites, researchers should make an explicit effort to minimize such risks in their recruitment efforts and advertising. This has already been addressed on some platforms, for example when Facebook banned targeted ads based on sensitive information (including health-related status and interests). Further, you must take steps to ensure anonymization and protection of any user data collected via social media ads.
On the other hand, patients’ use of social media during a trial can pose risks to trial integrity. For example, someone could share about their personal experience openly and could expose confidential trial-related information.
Solution 1: Educate all patients and trial staff about appropriate social media use
The best solution may be to inform patients about appropriate social media use while they are enrolled in a trial. This could be done as part of the informed consent process, or in the first study visit. It is important to highlight the potential risks of sharing their health information openly online, and of compromising the integrity of the trial by sharing confidential study-related information.
From the sponsor side, be sure to adhere to privacy regulations specific to each platform, and respect the privacy of patients online. Make sure that sensitive information is stored securely, and that any landing pages or sign-up forms are properly secured so that data leaks do not occur.
Challenge 2: Navigating complex user privacy regulations and targeted ad bans
Most platforms have specific regulations regarding medical ads, which encompasses clinical trial advertisements. These regulations vary by platform, so it may take some time to familiarize yourself with what is and what is not allowed on each platform. You will likely have to design different creative for each platform. Further, some features that were previously leveraged to target recruitment ads to specific demographics based on health interests or personal information are no longer allowed. All of these considerations need to be navigated when designing your ad campaign, and all content also needs to be approved by an IRB.
Solution 2: Stay up to date on current regulations and design clever creative
Besides the workaround solution of contracting an external partner specializing in recruitment ads who is already familiar with this regulatory landscape, if you decide to design your recruitment advertising campaigns internally, it is important to stay up to date on the current regulations regarding user privacy on each platform you wish to launch your ads on.
In general, the ideal solution is to design smart campaigns that target your audience by resonating with them and speaking to their needs. In other words, your creative should naturally catch the attention of the relevant audience rather than targeting them directly using their private interest data, which can feel intrusive and may even turn them off from the idea of participating. Using interactive content, cleverly designed graphics, and continually improving your ads to stay relevant can help. Monitor the results of each ad to see what resonates with your audience, and incorporate relevant user feedback to refine the ads.
Challenge 3: Potential abundance of low-interest and ineligible prospects
Especially with targeted ad bans in place, it can be difficult to draw-in eligible participants from amongst the wide audience who may see your ads. Advertising campaigns can begin to eat up the recruitment budget without providing results if the net is cast too wide and the interactions with your content are only superficial.
Solution 3: Be clear and speak to the needs of your audience
Since casting a wide net isn't always fruitful for social media clinical trial recruitment campaigns, make sure to provide as much information as possible in your ads. Be clear and transparent, so that people can easily determine whether or not they are actually eligible for the trial. Well-designed creative that speaks to unique needs of your target population can perform a similar function as ad targeting, increasing the likelihood of capturing high-interest, eligible participants. Another great strategy is to narrow down your target audience with pre-screening questions deployed through interactive content or on landing pages.
Finally, monitor the right metrics - conversion rate (leading to actual enrollment) is the ultimate target. Establish your recruitment targets, identify the metrics that best reflect the campaign’s performance in terms of those targets, and adjust accordingly.
Top social media channels for recruiting patients for clinical trials
The main social media platforms can all be great options for clinical trial advertising campaigns, although each excels in unique ways. Here we discuss the most-popular platforms and briefly describe their user demographic, ad types offered, and specific strengths.
In 2022, Facebook had 2.9 billion global users, making it the most-used social media platform. A study by Pew Research Center found that between 2018 and 2019, people aged 65 and older represented the fastest-growing user base on Facebook. Younger users (<29) appear to be engaging less with Facebook and more with other platforms. Such statistics can be useful when deciding whether Facebook makes sense as a platform for launching your recruitment ads.
Facebook offers a lot of ad formats, which are briefly described below:
- Image: Basic single-image ads (image ads)
- Video: Video ads, where the recommended length is 15 seconds or less
- Carousel: A series of up to 10 images, each with their own description and link, which can be clicked through. Collection ads are similar to carousel ads, but full-screen and more interactive.
- Instant experience: Mobile-only ads with interactive content. Previously known as “Canvas Ads”
- Lead: Lead ads allow for rapid sign-up or input of contact information, which could be useful for funneling prospective participants into the next stages of enrollment
- Stories: Full-screen, vertical ad format for mobile phones which can contain photos or videos
- Slideshow: Images play in a slideshow format, reducing data consumption in comparison to videos, which may be ideal when advertising in places with poor internet speeds
With Facebook’s impressive user base across all age groups, daily usage, and flexible ad format options, it tends to be one of the top contenders for clinical trial recruitment advertising. For further detail, see our Facebook clinical trial recruitment article.
There are 2 billion monthly active users on Instagram, and more than 60% are between 18–34 years old. Instagram could be a good place to place recruitment ads if your patient demographic falls within this age range; usage rates are significantly lower for users over 55 years of age. One important thing to note is that Instagram reportedly achieves higher engagement rates than Facebook, which could compensate for its (only slightly) smaller user base.
Instagram excels in both photo and video content, but it is typically used in a quick “scrolling” manner, so it is best suited for ads that are concise and transparent, with a quick and clear call-to-action. Interestingly Like Facebook, Instagram offers numerous ad types which are suited to different needs:
- Photo ads: The simplest advertisement option, but a well-designed photo can still be very effective if it captures the viewer’s attention and manages to convey essential information
- Video ads: Much more information can be conveyed through a short video than a photo, which can help ensure that your viewers can determine their eligibility and fit for the trial themselves
- Carousel ads: A series of photos can be used as a sort of “funnel,” providing increasing information with each image and bringing viewers closer to a landing or sign-up/contact form
- Story ads: Instagram stories are full-screen video or photos, so a story ad is an immersive way to engage your audience, and a call-to-action is provided via a “swipe up” link to a landing page
Other: Twitter, Reddit, Snapchat, Outbrain, Quora, YouTube
There are many other social media platforms which, despite their significantly smaller user bases, may offer significant advantages in terms of reaching niche groups and specialized content. As we mentioned previously, narrowing down your clinical trial advertisement and recruitment strategies to the right places and audiences can often be more valuable than casting broader nets. Here are some examples of other platforms and their potential unique advantages:
- Reddit: You may be able to find dedicated “subReddits” for the condition your treatment is designed for, which could provide access to a high-potential demographic, as well as offering insight into what those with the condition may be missing, which can help you design your recruitment ads
- Twitter: Twitter’s feed is made up of short, 140-character “tweets.” This is not much room for providing full information, but one advantage is that you are free to insert direct links to landing pages or sign-up forms. Twitter’s user base is much smaller, but it tends to be seen as having a more “business-oriented” or “professional” landscape, which may allow you to reach a different type of audience.
- Quora: Quora is a platform where users can ask questions that are then answered by qualified professionals in the subject. This sense of “authority” may make it a promising platform to reach users who are more inclined to seek professional advice, or who may not trust ads on more “social” platforms such as Facebook or Instagram.
There are some challenges involved in designing and executing effective clinical trial recruitment campaigns on social media, but with deliberate and strategic planning, social media opens up a whole new world for advertising your clinical trials and can be a worthwhile strategy. Define your target population, understand their behavior and where they may be most active on social media, and design clever creative. With consistent monitoring and improvements, you will likely find that social media recruitment campaigns can be effective in helping you achieve your trial recruitment goals.