Does Social Media Recruitment Make Sense for My Clinical Trial?

When it comes to recruitment, social media can seem daunting—with so many platforms and factors to consider, it can get overwhelming fast.

However, medical and pharmaceutical industries have been relying on social media for clinical trial recruiting for years. And with the expanding ubiquity of social media all over the world, and increasing competition for patients and clinical trial subjects, its popularity as an advertising platform is only going to keep growing.

At Trialfacts, we’ve learned that traditional advertising simply cannot outpace social media for certain types of studies. We began recruiting via social media when Facebook launched its advertising capability in 2009.

Since then, we’ve successfully recruited for hundreds of studies exclusively via social media. And we’ve become very good at figuring out which studies are a great fit for social media recruitment, and which studies are not. If you’d like to understand how many participants we can guarantee for your study just from digital marketing—you can request a free recruitment plan here.

In order to make everyone’s lives a little easier, we’ve compiled a comprehensive list of clinical studies for which social media recruitment works exceptionally well, and studies for which it does not.

When Social Media Makes Sense

Social media targeting is largely interest-based. Which means that it is easy to target specific demographics based on their interest in a certain area. For example, someone who is very interested in diet and fitness would probably be more likely to participate in a fitness study.

That’s why, when it comes to recruitment, social media platforms often works well for things like chronic conditions, diet and exercise science, or mental health or psychology. In addition to those types of studies, there are also several demographics for which social media is the ultimate recruitment tool. In this section, we’ll be examining the types of studies social media works best for, as well as the specific demographics that make sense for social media recruitment.

Chronic Conditions

The patients who are most motivated and most likely to participate in clinical trials have a personal interest in a specific condition. They often are keen to participate because they’ve been living with a condition for a long time and they want to contribute to research. They also might want to make their condition more manageable.

Alternatively, if the person interested in a trial has a loved one who is suffering from a chronic ailment like diabetes, Crohn’s disease, asthma, etc., they will be very interested in making their loved ones’ condition more manageable, and thus more likely to pass on a suitable research study to a loved one.

Mental Health or Psychology Studies

Any mental health study that targets a chronic illness is a good fit because people suffering from a chronic ailment are more likely to sign up for a study that affects them (or their loved ones). And people suffering from an (undiagnosed or diagnosed) mental health disorder may feel more comfortable registering their interest for a study via the privacy of the online medium.

Also, psychology studies are sometimes also a good fit for social media if they require specific demographics. For example, if you need to recruit couples, you can easily target people who are married or in a relationship through Facebook advertising.

Diet/Exercise Science Studies

There are thousands of diet and fitness groups and pages on Facebook. And since dieting or fitness are not acute conditions and are based around someone’s personal interest, these types of studies are more likely to be successful for social media recruitment strategies.

Sexual Health

Even though sexual health is delicate in nature and often considered embarrassing, people still sign up for sexual health studies via social media. Volunteers for sexual health studies appreciate the fact that they can sign up online, privately and securely.

We’ve recruited for quite a lot of sexual health studies, and we find that social media has worked really well for these types of studies.

Very Specific Population

You can easily target populations within specific areas via social media—platforms like Facebook allow you to target specific towns, ZIP codes, or larger geographic areas. So, if your study is targeting a population in a specific geographic area, social media recruitment might work very well for you. However, if you’re recruiting from a specific hospital population, that will not be a good fit for social media, as you’ll see later on in this article.

Demographics Under 75

When we first started using social media recruitment ten years ago, we used to run social media ads for younger demographics and traditional media for older demographics. However, during this time, a gradual and continuing shift has occurred that has made it more effective to also recruit older demographics via social media.

Today, 67% of adults ages 65 and older in the United States say they go online. And based on our experience, social media recruitment works very well for people aged up to the early 70s, assuming you are recruiting for a chronic condition (Facebook works particularly well for older demographics).

Additionally, we’ve found that social media recruitment via tablets or iPads also works very well for older demographics. Roughly one-third (32%) of seniors in the United States say they own tablet computers, which means that mobile or tablet-focused ads work very well.

Pediatric Studies

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is a United States federal law that states that when online, children under the age of 13 can only give out personal information with their parents’ permission.

Because of laws like COPPA, a lot of researchers might think that pediatric studies fall under the umbrella of “studies that don’t do well on social media.” However, social media platforms allow you to target parents of children under the age of 13. And it’s the same for teenagers—social media works well for both parents and teenagers.

While it might vary from study to study, if you are targeting teenagers directly and they are under the age of consent, their parents will most likely have to consent for them to participate. However, you may easily get the parents’ contact details if a teenager is interested in participating in your study.

Healthy Volunteers / Controls

When you are advertising for clinical trial recruitment, you’re advertising in a specific geographic area and looking for a specific type of person that meets the eligibility criteria and is interested in participating. Because of that, you need a high number of people. The more people who use a specific social media platform, the better the chances that you can reach the people you are looking to recruit.

There is a high number of healthy volunteers on social media. And you can cast a wide net by targeting a certain demographic without targeting any particular interests. When working with Facebook advertising, for example, you can choose to target a broad audience for which interests or specific demographics are not defined. So, if your study requires healthy volunteers, social media recruitment might work very well for you!

When Social Media Doesn’t Make Sense

If someone has just developed a condition or has just been recently diagnosed, or if someone has suffered from an acute event (or condition), this often does not work well for recruiting via social media. There are also certain demographics for which social media recruitment does not work particularly well.

So, to save you time and money, we’ve listed some of the situations in which social media does not work well for recruitment below.

Acute Event / Condition

If someone has just recently developed a condition and is looking for alternative treatment options, participating in a trial is unlikely to be in their top choices to improve their condition.

Newly Developed Condition

Because new medical issues can be very intimidating, trying a new clinical treatment that is still in the testing stages is a scary prospect for many. Someone who has just been diagnosed with a condition is usually still coming to terms with the diagnosis, trying to understand the condition and the standard treatment options—the idea of undertaking research on top of everything is often overwhelming.

That is why someone who has just been recently diagnosed with a condition is not going to jump into clinical trials as the main treatment option—they’re going to go through the standard treatments recommended by their doctor (which is why these types of studies are usually best recruited via the patient’s physician, because of the existing trust and relationship).

Procedure / Surgery

Clinical trials for new procedures or surgeries are difficult to recruit for via social media.

Timing is key when recruiting for a trial of a new procedure or surgery. For example, if you’re recruiting for a new type of melanoma surgery, you probably need to find someone who will require that surgery in the next few months. However, this kind of specific targeting is almost impossible to achieve via social media. There is no platform that can tell you whether someone has a condition, much less if they’re going to need surgery in the near future. Therefore, it’s best to go through a patient’s physician directly for these types of studies.

Hospital Population

Similar to surgery trials, clinical trials that require participants from a certain hospital are not a good fit for social media recruitment—the targeting is much too narrow for the options available on social media platforms. So, if you need to recruit volunteers from a specific hospital, you are better off going through that specific hospital directly, or through the physicians in the hospital.

Very Rare Conditions

Very rare conditions often do not make sense for social media advertising.

Unlike healthy volunteer studies, there usually aren’t enough people with rare conditions on social media, because there usually aren’t any interests associated with the condition. For example, if someone has a rare form of cancer, it is unlikely that specific form of cancer will come up in the demographic interests of a Facebook campaign.

In addition to the lack of targeted interests available for rare conditions, Facebook often removes rarely used interests from the platform. While new interests do get added over time, Facebook regularly removes interests that only cover a very small number of people. So even if someone is associated with a rare condition, it is likely that Facebook will remove this interest in the near future, and you will not be able to target it in your campaign.

Like surgery trials or trials requiring a hospital population, you are better off reaching out to physicians directly when it comes to rare conditions.

Demographics Over 75

If you’re looking for people over the age of 75 to recruit for your trial, then social media probably does not make sense as a recruitment strategy for you.

For one, there aren’t great targeting options over the age of 65—for example if you want to target anyone over the age of 65 on facebook, they are lumped into a single category called 65+. Which means that your advertising campaign will not be very cost-effective, because people who are 65, 66, etc. will also see it, even though you want to target, for example, only people aged 75 and over.

What Next?

Whether or not a study is a good fit for social media requires an evaluation of several elements: is there a big enough number of potential participants in the social media demographics pool? Is this a chronic or an acute condition? Is your study targeting a very specific location? All those factors can determine whether or not your study is fit for social media advertising.

Once you’ve determined whether your study is a good fit for social media recruitment, there are other factors to consider as well. For example, which social media platform is better suited for your study? How much will it cost to fully recruit your study from social media advertising?

All this can be a little overwhelming if you aren’t familiar with the options. So, if you’re still unsure whether or not social media is a good fit, or if you’re overwhelmed by the number of platforms to choose from, you can always ask the experts.

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