Beginner’s Guide to Using Facebook Advertising for Patient Recruitment

900 million people per day. 20 minutes per day. 14 times per day.

What do these figures represent? If you guessed the number of people who engage with Facebook on a daily basis, the average time spent on Facebook by each person per day, and the average number of times each person checks Facebook per day, then you guessed correctly.

Facebook has more than 1.4 billion users, 64% of whom log on every day. This user database reaches a massive and diverse group of people, creating serious advertising potential for clinical researchers who need to recruit patients for their next trial. Need to reach women aged 18-50 who are interested in dieting within a 50-mile radius? How about single men in their late-20’s who suffer from asthma within your state or province? With Facebook, you can target both of these groups and more.

For first-time Facebook advertisers, the process can seem daunting. How do you know it will work for your clinical trial? How do you get started? Do you need to be technically proficient to advertise on Facebook? How complex is it? How much does it cost? How many people will you be able to reach and recruit with your budget? We’ll tackle all of these questions and more in this comprehensive beginner’s guide.

If you prefer to have the experts take care of the advertising process and everything that takes place after the click, schedule a free consultation with us.

How does Facebook advertising work?

All advertising on Facebook is set up through the Facebook Ads Manager or through third party programs like AdEspresso. You’ll need to register with one of these platforms to get started, based on factors such as your budget. For your first time, using Facebook’s internal platform makes sense. However, if you’re going to be periodically using Facebook ads, we recommend using AdEspresso.

One of the biggest positive changes to Facebook’s advertising potential in recent years is its increased ability to gather information about its users. In the early days of Facebook, users had to actively share specific information about themselves in order for it to be targeted by advertisers. Today, Facebook tracks everything that users view, like, share, and comment on, as well as their behavior on other sites that integrate with Facebook, and stores all that information (along with other metrics) for advertising purposes. They also connect user information with companies that provide additional demographic data, such as household income in the US.

While users don’t often specifically share on their Facebook pages that they have a given medical condition, there is a good chance that someone with a medical condition has liked, shared or commented on an article or page related to that condition such as news related to a new treatment, articles about management of or living with the condition, related editorials, and support groups.

The result is that in many instances, Facebook can effectively link individual users or their family members to specific medical conditions, making it easier than ever for clinical researchers to reach them.

Ready to create great ads? Here’s how:

1. Determine your objective.

Assuming that your goal with Facebook advertising is to recruit more patients for your clinical trial, the objective of your ad will likely be to get those who view it to sign up or submit an enquiry form about the trial via signup form or contact form. Typically, you will want to use the trial signup page as your ad landing page.

Your objective could also be to get the patient to call you, depending on whether or not you have an adequate number of staff on hand to answer incoming calls. If you’re running ads after business hours, you’ll need to be sure you have an adequate system for taking enquiries and getting back to patients who call in. Either way, keep your objective in mind throughout all stages of the Facebook advertising process to make sure your advertising is recruiting patients and doesn’t just generate vanity metrics, such as website views or incoming calls that don’t result in enrolments.

You’ll also want to make sure the language and images used on your landing page is consistent with that used in the ad. When users see your ad and decide to click on it, it’s because something about the ad appealed to them or piqued their interest. This means they’ll have certain expectations about what’s on the other side of the ad when they click on it. If the two messages don’t align, you’ll probably lose their interest.

In addition to your overall objective, it’s also important to choose what Facebook calls the campaign objective – what your advertisements’ immediate achievement should be. This is a key part of advertising. It’s extremely important that you align your actual objective (enrolled patients) as much as possible with the campaign objective.

Here’s an example: a campaign objective such as website visits is a bad idea because Facebook will then optimise its advertising algorithm to get as many people to view your website as possible. It doesn’t care whether these people are interested in your study or likely to enrol. Instead, set your campaign objective to something that will have a direct positive effect on your enrolment success.

For example, you can set your campaign objective to be form signups. Now, the algorithm will optimise for people who sign up, not just visit the webpage. It’s a more advanced process, but if you can add eligibility criteria to the signup form so that those people who are ineligible are rejected, you can then set your campaign objective to people who sign up (and pass the eligibility criteria questions). Facebook’s algorithm will now optimise for those people. This is done by including the Facebook ads tracking pixel on the webpage that people are directed to after completing the form. If you’re not technical, you may need your website administrator to add this for you.

Setting up conversion tracking is one of the most crucial components of running any Facebook advertising campaign. Assuming your ad directs people to a sign-up page for your clinical trial, install the Facebook tracking pixel on the “thank you” page that appears after they sign up in order to track ad results.

If the tracking pixel is installed, Facebook will track your conversions for each ad within the campaign. Make sure to set your campaign to “optimise conversions” and Facebook will automatically allocate more money to the ads with greater success rates (higher conversions) and less money to the ads that are performing poorly. It will also start automatically targeting your ads to people similar to those who signed up.

2. Define your target audience.

As you set up your ads with Facebook, the site will give you the option to select your audience based on both demographics and interests. It’s extremely important that you use both parameters to narrow down your target audience and guarantee that your ad reaches the right patients.
In terms of defining your ad audience by location, a good rule of thumb is to target individuals who are located within a 10-mile radius of your research site.

However, for patient demographics that are more motivated (such as back pain patients), you can expand further, especially if patients are able to reach the research site quickly or easily via highways or in low traffic areas.

For less reliable patient demographics (such as acne), you’ll be better off to target more closely to the research site. Patients in these types of categories that are located farther than 10 miles from your research site are less likely to actually opt in for the trial.


There’s a common misconception that Facebook isn’t ideal for targeting older generations, but it’s not true! 10% of Facebook’s users are 65 or older, the highest 65+ population of any social media platform.

You have two basic options: you can target all ages allowed in your trial (for example, 18-65) or you can target the ages that are most likely to meet the eligibility criteria, (for example, 40+ for type 2 diabetes). The benefit of being more targeted with your age is that it is that a higher ratio of people will sign up, which in turn lowers your cost – because your advertising will be more effective, Facebook will show your ads more often and charge you less.

This actually applies to all targeting. Generally, it will depend on the number of people you are targeting – if it’s a populous area and you if you can target a lot of people with the relevant medical condition, it pays to be more targeted. If there are fewer people you can target, you may have to widen your scope. However, also keep in mind that a good strategy is to also target family members who may be of a different age.


Does your clinical trial pertain to men, women, or both? Don’t waste your advertising funds targeting all genders if your ad only applies to one or the other.

The full age group breakdown of Facebook users is as follows:

  • 10% of users are age 65 or older
  • 15% are between the ages of 55 and 64
  • 18% are between the ages of 45 and 54
  • 19% are between the ages of 35 and 44
  • 22% are between the ages of 25 and 34
  • 16% are between the ages of 18 and 24


One of the categories advertisers can use to filter and define target audiences on Facebook is “interests.” This includes everything from activities to entertainment, celebrity figures to cities/communities, and everything in between.

Think about the interests your target patients may have expressed on Facebook. Keep in mind that Facebook determines user interests based on what they like, share, comment on, or otherwise engage with, as well as what they post directly.

In terms of interests relating to the health condition you are studying in your clinical trial, the interests you include should go beyond just the name of the condition itself. For instance, if you are recruiting patients who have diabetes, you will want to include the specific keyword “diabetes,” but you’ll also want to include any and all medications, treatment centers, organisations, books, documentaries, support groups, and Facebook pages that are linked to diabetes.

The key to reaching the right people is to think outside the box and cover all possible bases. Facebook will also suggest keywords, so you can start by typing “diabetes” and see what else comes up. You should also include other keywords, such as “Type 1 diabetes,” “juvenile diabetes,” “diabetes mellitus,” and so on.

3. Set your budget.

Determine your advertising budget by looking at your overall recruitment budget and the amount of time you have to recruit patients. Make sure that you do actually have a sufficient budget to achieve the results you are seeking before paying for and launching the ad.

Start out small and measure the number of enrolments before spending large amounts of the budget! It can seem like you’re having a lot of success because you’re getting a lot of clicks, comments, and shares, but that does not always translate to enrolments. The last thing you want is to have spent the entire budget, generated a lot of clicks and buzz, but had no one enrol into the study.

4. Check your reach to make sure it’s sufficient.

Once you’ve input your demographics, interests, and budget, Facebook Ad Manager will tell you what your estimated campaign reach is. Consider that approximately 0.5-2% (1% is a good rule of thumb) of the people who will see your ad will actually click on it.

Assuming you have a strong landing page that appeals to patients’ interests and has a clear call to action, approximately 8-15% (10% is a good rule of thumb) of those people who click on your ad will actually sign up for the trial.

In other words, ad reach x 0.001 = the approximate number of people who you might expect to sign up for your clinical trial after seeing your ad. Keep in mind that this is a conservative estimate and you will not be able to contact all patients. Not all these people will pass phone screening, some will decide not to participate, and others will screen fail at the screening visit.

5. Create your ad content.

Your ad content should be created well in advance of the period when you plan to advertise so you have plenty of time to receive approval from your IRB or ethics committee.

Brainstorm at least 2 or 3 alternatives for your ad headline, text, and description – the more the better, especially if you don’t have much experience knowing what will work. Then, mix and match those components to create a variety of combinations. Facebook will run all these ads at the same time under a single campaign to determine what works best in terms of image, text, and call to action, and then begin showing which ones are performing at the highest levels. Which options are the most and least effective? Use this information going forward to nail down your most effective ad content.

You may even want to create multiple campaigns with multiple ad options running within each of them. For example, you may have a campaign targeting patients of a certain age, another targeting patients of all eligible ages, and a third targeting family members. There is no limit here except your creativity. You may find that one campaign performs much better than the others (or perhaps more likely, one campaign performs and the others do not). This will allow you to target patients with different interests and demographics at the same time.

Either way, make sure your ad’s human side shines through by using compassionate and understanding language rather than stiff clinical terminology. Stay true to your unique personality and voice, and users will be more likely to trust you and sign up for the trial.

6. Get ad approval.

It’s extremely important to be organised and ahead of the game when it comes to creating ads, since they will need to be approved by both your ethics committee or IRB and Facebook before you can get started.

You can test your ad with Facebook by uploading it and setting your advertising budget to $0. If it is rejected, go back to the drawing board. Facebook ad approval usually occurs within 24 hours and is completed by a human.

To ensure that your ad is approved by Facebook, keep in mind that Facebook wants their user experience to be a positive and happy one. Avoid using images of unpleasant medical conditions, as they may make users uncomfortable and are likely to be rejected by Facebook. Similarly, stay away from what Facebook considers to be offensive language. Stick with neutral phrases such as “This is a study on the effects of obesity,” rather than “Are you obese?”

7. Select your ad placement.

Your ad placement options include newsfeed, sidebar, and mobile-compatible. Ideally, you’ll want to use all these formats to increase your reach as much as possible. However, mobile placement will be the most effective by far.

Carefully inspect the way your ad appears with each placement option to ensure the ad looks appealing and that all information can be easily seen and read. A long headline or text field on the desktop version might look okay, but it could be cut off on a mobile device.

8. Track your results and modify.

Measuring the number of enrolments from your campaign is an important part of understanding its effectiveness. This step is crucial because it can seem like your campaign is doing very well (views, clicks, comments, shares), but if you’re not getting enrolments, you’re essentially failing.

Track enrolments by source and then establish the number of enrolments you receive from a small pilot Facebook campaign (or cost per enrolment) before allocating more of your advertising budget to Facebook. Utilising the Facebook tracking pixel will help you identify key factors.

Top Tips for Success

1. Facebook advertising tends to work best in cities with larger populations. If your research site is located within a town that has a population of less than 250,000, Facebook ads are likely the wrong approach for reaching your demographic. More traditional advertising forms will likely be more effective.

2. Think about how many potential patients can be targeted based on how common or rare the condition you’re studying is. In general, it’s very difficult to target patients with rare health conditions, since the overall target population is so small.

A rough guide to follow is this: if 1% or more of the general population has the condition you’re researching, it’s probably a viable option to recruit patients using Facebook advertising. If not, seek other forms of advertising. You can also do a quick check by going to the Facebook ads interface and inputting the demographics, location, and interests to see how many people are targetable.

3. If less than 1% of the people who see your ad are actually clicking on it, it’s a sign of a weak ad. Likewise, if less than 6% of the people who click on the ad to fill out the contact form, that’s a sign of a weak landing page. Keep track of these measures and make changes accordingly.

4. More than 95% of the success of your Facebook ad campaign depends on what happens after a user clicks on your ad. This includes the landing page they are sent to, the information shared on the landing page, whether it’s mobile friendly or not, whether it’s enticing and motivating, how easy it is to fill out the contact form, and how you get in touch with them after they sign up.

There’s a lot of work and consideration that goes into creating an effective campaign, but when done properly, Facebook advertising can create huge recruitment opportunities for clinical researchers.

The tools and insights you’ve gained from this guide should function as a solid starting point for your Facebook advertising initiatives. It may seem like a lot of information and decisions to work through at first, but with some careful tracking and monitoring, you’ll be recruiting eligible patients for your trial in no time.

Ready to begin social media recruitment for your study? These guides will help:

  1. Does Social Media Recruitment Make Sense for My Clinical Trial?
  2. Creating Effective Social Media Posts for Clinical Trial Recruitment
  3. How to Recruit a Representative Sample

If you’d prefer to have the experts take care of the advertising process as well as everything that occurs after the click, schedule a free consultation with us. We’ll ensure you get the cost-effective advertising results your clinical trial needs.

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