Clinical Trial Advertising: Everything You Need to Know (with examples)

It’s been years in the making. 

Finally, after what seems like endless rounds of changes to your initial proposal, you find out that your clinical trial is moving ahead.

To celebrate you take your clinic manager to lunch, and there she starts talking about all the problems she has recruiting for another study.

Apparently, people are clicking on the Facebook ads they’ve made but few people are enrolling.

Facebook isn't necessarily a magic solution for recruitment challenges.

“It’s been such a struggle and we’ve been really frustrated,” she says.

You ask, “Why isn’t Facebook working? Isn’t that where everyone spends time online?”

Your clinic manager says she doesn’t know, but she’ll figure it out for your study. 

She continues, “After all, it can’t be that hard, can it? I’ve been on Facebook FOREVER and the patient recruitment ad stuff should be pretty straightforward.” 

Your heart sinks. The fries that you were happily eating now are now cold and greasy.

Clinical trial advertising and participant recruitment. 

The thing that keeps you up at night… and the topic that we’re going to do a deep dive into.

The real deal about clinical trial advertising in the 21st century

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that clinical trial advertising has changed a lot over the last decade.

With social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube along with online search tools like Google eating up advertising market share,  patient recruitment advertising needs to keep pace.

Google "How do I advertise on Facebook?" and you'll get back 1.47 billion results.

Why traditional media isn’t as effective for clinical trial ads

Once upon a time, newspapers, radio and television ruled the advertising world. The keys to successful advertising were relatively straightforward and consistent. 

The average clinical trial could get away with recruiting patients through traditional means like patient databases and by posting flyers in high traffic areas.

Studies with a budget could run a few newspaper ads, take out a page in a community newsletter or order some radio spots to make up for a recruitment shortfall. 

These approaches to a clinical trial advertisement would bring in interested participants, though without any way to predict their eligibility, or how consistently they’d show up.

Move over newspaper, television and radio, digital marketing is king 

The market share held by traditional media has continued to shrink over the last 10 years, and in its place digital marketing has taken over. 

In 2020, spending on online advertising in the United States is likely to reach $151 billion dollars, whereas traditional media spending will account for $107 billion dollars.

To put it in comparison in 1999, online advertising in the United States was $4.8 billion dollars and traditional advertising saw an investment of $94 billion dollars. 

That’s a significant difference, and it’s estimated that spending on digital advertising will account for ⅔ of all advertising dollars by 2023.

According to Trialfacts CEO Nick Karrasch, “It [traditional advertising] doesn’t work very well any longer because people aren’t engaging in those mediums… So instead of watching local TV, we spend our time on Netflix, Apple TV and YouTube.”

He goes on to say, “Instead of listening to the radio, we’re listening to podcasts, Spotify and other digital shows. Instead of reading newspapers we’re now getting the news from our Facebook news feed, Twitter, Reddit or directly from news apps.” 

With so much change to digital information in such a quick period of time, it can be hard to keep up with what works and what doesn’t.

Digital advertising is here to stay, and will continue to eat up market share.

Meet the other royals – mobile technology & social media

With that being said, when done correctly digital advertising can outperform traditional media because of the reach of online platforms and audience targeting features they use.

Fuelled by the adoption of mobile technology like SmartPhones and tablet computers, digital media is a regular part of the lives of billions of people around the world. 

Related: Social Media and Mobile Devices Have Changed the Way Study Participants Are Recruited

For example, Facebook boasts over two billion user accounts (as of 2020 the global population sits at 7.8 billion people).

According to Pew Research, in 2019 almost 70% of adults in the United States used Facebook. With a population of 328 million people, this means that close to 230 million Americans are connected to the social media giant.

Aside from the sheer volume of people accessing information online and through social media, these platforms have advanced demographic targeting features available to advertisers that no traditional media source can compete with.

The trick is to use these tools effectively and to understand what kind of information the computer algorithms must be fed in order to get your ad in front of the right people at the right time.

“Unless a particular researcher has an advertising and marketing background, they should be focusing on what they do best, and look at hiring an expert.”
Nick Karrasch
CEO, Trialfacts

Without the understanding of the back-end set up and the way that digital advertising works across each platform, you can easily spend your entire advertising budget and have nothing to show for it.

Want to check out a few of our most successful ads? Download our free swipe file here.

Age or disease type doesn’t mean someone isn’t on social media

Here’s some good news. The 65+ demographic is the fastest growing group adopting digital technology. 

Digital marketing can be just as effective for older demographics and unique populations because of the reach and advanced targeting features.

In fact, these tools can make recruitment easier because of how specific you can design advertisements and the post-click experience for your target population.

Older populations are on social media and many of them have a SmartPhone!

For example, this recent ad Trialfacts ran on Facebook was seeking female participants between the ages of 50-85.

Older members of this target demographic may not be who you immediately assume use social media, but don’t count someone out because of their age!

Related: Does Social Media Make Sense for My Clinical Trial?

In addition to these individuals themselves, patient recruitment ads can be targeted towards partners, caregivers or friends of older individuals or unique populations, who then see the ad and respond on their behalf.

In some disease areas, especially those that can be incredibly isolating, the online world is a lifeline for these patients.

The key to successful recruitment is knowing what platforms and search tools these groups use, and optimizing your advertising to reach them.

Digital marketing has made advertising more complex than ever

While running an ad in a newspaper or putting together a radio spot is relatively straightforward, the sheer number of platforms, options, requirements and limitations of each digital marketing method has added a lot of additional complexity that’s often overlooked.

Platform selection – Facebook, Google and YouTube, oh my!

When you think about online advertising options it’s likely that Facebook, Google and YouTube are the first that come to mind because of their proliferation of the online advertising space.

But there are a lot of other options available to savvy marketers to get their message in front of the right audience.

These include platforms and services like Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, SnapChat, TikTok, Spotify, podcasts, banner ads and a host of others.

Related: Beginner’s Guide to Using Facebook Advertising for Patient Recruitment

Further complicating things are the specific, nuanced ways that advertisements must be written to be effective on each platform.

Image sizes and formats will need to be different, and you’ll need to consider ad placement and policies that all impact how your ad will be viewed.

Bright colors in the image and the use of emoji icons in the text make this Facebook ad stand out.

As nice as it would be, there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach that can be used across all platforms.

Each has its own unique requirements that can be overlooked or lumped together when we talk about “social media advertising.”

The Ultimate Swipe File For Clinical Trial Recruitment Ads

Take a sneak peek at the top ads that are working for clinical trials

Discover the underlying marketing principles behind the best-performing clinical trial recruitment ads

Learn how to tailor your message for each platform

The good, the bad and the (sometimes ugly) of patient recruitment ads

If the complexity wasn’t enough for you to think about calling in the experts, it’s entirely possible that the next two points will be all you need.

IRB/Ethics approval is needed for everything – Every. Single. Thing.

The need for IRB/Ethics approval won’t come as a surprise to anyone that’s been involved in a clinical trial before, but the scope and scale of necessary approvals for a digital marketing campaign is enormous.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that they only need to make one or two ads and have these approved before running them on their platform of choice.

In reality, you must create 100s of ads in order to test them effectively with online audiences.

Ad testing is a critical step in creating an effective campaign, and your IRB/Ethics committee must approve every version of each ad, even if it’s a small change to your text.

An ad package submitted for IRB/Ethics approval - do you really want to do the work yourself?

To make it even more maddening, approval is also required for responses to comments that may be left behind on ads.

If an ad generates a strong response with a lot of comments being left behind, you’ll find yourself with your hands tied if you want to respond in real time. 

What this looks like in reality is developing some generic responses that are approved in advance.

This limits your ability to actively engage with participants in a meaningful way, and it can cause you a lot of frustration, as social media is supposed to foster discussion.

Keep in mind that when Trialfacts puts together a package of advertisements for IRB/Ethics approval, these documents are at least 50 pages long!

Platform advertising policies and requirements change frequently

In the digital marketing industry it’s no secret that platform specific advertising policies and requirements change all the time. 

We also know that these specs can change on a whim and that they’re proprietary algorithms, exclusive to each platform that impact what is approved and what is effective.

No one, aside from the company that owns the platform, really knows what words, phrases, and images may be banned at any given time.

Changes are often made without any advance notice, so an ad strategy that worked yesterday is now irrelevant today.

Screen Shot 2020-07-07 at 2.31.09 PM
An effective Facebook ad for a potentially hard to reach population - children.

Without the expertise to know what information being fed to each platform’s advertising algorithm is the source of a failed campaign, you might find yourself running in circles.

According to Karrasch, “Unless a particular researcher has an advertising and marketing background, they should be focusing on what they do best, and look at hiring an expert.”

Researchers don’t know what they don’t know and it can be best to find the right resources to complement their team, rather than to start entirely from scratch.

What you really need to think about to successfully recruit patients for your study

There are many things that go into a successful recruitment campaign that most researchers and trial sponsors don’t consider, or realize are important until things aren’t going well. Consider these as effective clinical trial advertising guidelines.

It’s about more than writing a great clinical trial ad

Writing an effective clinical trial ad is one of the easy and less time consuming parts of the process.

Related: Creating Effective Social Media Posts for Clinical Trial Recruitment

You should also be thinking about nuances of each platform, their advertising policies and back-end reporting setup along with audience targeting features, among a host of other factors.

Writing a great ad, like for this milk study, is the easy part.

For example, the entire post-click experience – where your ad takes people to after they click – plays an essential role in attracting and retaining qualified patient leads, and is often overlooked by researchers.

To see more examples of great ad creative, download our free swipe file here.

Creation of effective landing pages or websites can make or break you

Consider your own experience when you click on an ad on social media, only to be taken to a poorly functioning, outdated or unprofessional landing page. 

It could be unclear text, bad stock images or other elements that immediately turn you off.

In many of these cases you’re likely to give up before even starting to scroll through the content, and your potential participants are no different.

A good landing page for a clinical trial needs to strike a balance between being descriptive and detailed, without getting bogged down in medical jargon.

It also needs to be optimized for mobile browsing and consider the entire user experience.

Another thing to remember is that the people clicking on your ad and finding their way to your landing page don’t know you.

Effective landing pages shape the participant experience and set the tone for your study.

They have no context about your study or why it may be important to them. Without this clearly spelled out right away, they’re likely to leave the page.

It’s your job to talk about the potential benefits of participating without going overboard, and staying within the principles of GCP and the content that has been approved by your IRB/Ethics committee.

Think of your landing page as a profile page on social media or a dating app like Tinder.

What you convey on your landing page is the first step in building trust and rapport with a potential participant, and you don’t want to go and ruin your first impression.

Proper back-end set up is a key to success

There are many back-end considerations that go into running a digital marketing campaign that most researchers aren’t aware of, and don’t really need to know as a part of their day to day job. 

These include things like having the expertise to know how computer algorithms work and the type of information they need to properly distribute your ad. 

It also includes having the proper reporting infrastructure in place to measure the cost per enrollment of each participant. 

Sure it might look nice to have 1,000 people ‘like’ your ad on Facebook, but if none of them have signed up for your study you really have nothing to show for your efforts (or your diminishing ad budget).

A lot of the measurements and data that you have access to, things like cost per click, cost per thousand impressions, click through rate, and cost per conversion, are relatively meaningless to clinical trial recruitment.

According to Nick Karrasch, “What matters is cost per enrolled participant into your study, the rate of participants flowing through your funnel, and then anything else is just an interim measure which is going to help indicate how things are going, but they really aren’t anywhere near as important.”

There are many situations where an ad has low engagement rates, but is highly successful in converting potential recruits into enrolled participants.

Without ongoing measurement and review of your data, you’re flying blind and hoping that whatever you’re doing sticks.

Platform specific advertising policies and requirements are hard to navigate

You can be forgiven for thinking that if your advertisement has been approved by your IRB/Ethics committee that it will be approved by your chosen platform, but this isn’t the case.

The rules around word count, image size, banned or inappropriate language/terminology, and even how ads are reviewed prior to posting are also all fair game.

If you take a closer look at the screenshot below it you’ll see there are specific policies related to prohibited and restricted content, video ads, targeting, positioning and the use of text in ad images.

These policies will impact what the content of the text, ads and landing pages.

Facebook has pages of advertising policies to sift through.

Without the background expertise to navigate this potential minefield, you’re likely to find yourself frustrated with lacklustre results from your online advertising efforts.

You’ll also not understand why your ads are being rejected or under performing.

Online pre screening can save you time and money

As you’ve probably already seen with other parts of digital marketing and online patient recruitment, when something is done properly it can save you a lot of hassle…

…and online pre screening is no different.

Imagine the ease of having an interested patient immediately directed from your study landing page to an online pre screening survey.

From here their eligibility can be determined in as short as 5-10 minutes without your staff having to lift a finger.

Potential participants can complete screening from their desk when it works for them.

You can weed out ineligible patients, and quickly move those who do qualify along your pipeline to the next step.

This has the potential to save you countless hours and dollars from your budget.

With an eye to the patient experience from start to finish, a properly executed pre screening process can help set expectations for the rest of your enrollment process.

A well designed and executed screening processes will let your participants know that they’re in good hands.

Ignoring the behind-the-scenes targeting of your advertisements

Online digital advertising platforms will happily take your money and share your ad to the masses, but this is a surefire way to fail to meet your recruitment goals.

There is considerable expertise that goes into developing and executing a strategy that gets your ad in front of the right audience.

Not only is demographic and socioeconomic data important, but also understanding the online habits of your ideal participant is essential.

This can be anything from the type of websites they visit to the amount of time they spend on their mobile devices.

You can also think about their social media browsing habits, and even specific likes and dislikes.

The more complete picture you can pull together of your ideal participant, the better designed your clinical trial advertisement campaign can be.

Without giving the details extra thought or even consideration, you’re setting your campaign up for what is likely to be a disappointment.

Interpreting analytical data and campaign optimization is ongoing

Digital marketing is driven by analytical data that can and should be used for constant and ongoing refinement of your campaign.

But there’s a catch.

What we see and equate with success are often referred to as vanity metrics. These are things like engagement – the number of likes, clicks, and shares – that a particular advertisement gets.

What most people don’t know is that a post can get a lot of engagement, but it translates into few people actually following through with sign up.

Focus on the metrics that matter, like the number of questionnaires passed.

The important numbers are related to actual conversions of interested patients into enrolled participants. It’s these data sets that need to be reviewed daily, and campaigns adjusted accordingly.

Unfortunately, with digital patient recruitment advertising there is no ‘set it and forget it’ strategy that’s going to get you the results you’re after.

If you fail to have the right reporting infrastructure in place that includes regular data review and reporting, you’re likely to be wasting your money.

“There is a small chance that you could do the recruitment yourself and it might go well, it might not cost you too much, and it might all work out… What’s much more likely is that you’ll start recruitment and it won’t just immediately work and you won’t know what to do next.”
Nick Karrasch
CEO, Trialfacts

Nick Karrasch says, “There is a small chance that you could do the recruitment yourself and it might go well, it might not cost you too much, and it might all work out… What’s much more likely is that you’ll start recruitment and it won’t just immediately work and you won’t know what to do next.”

Related: “It Didn’t Work for Us”: Why You Should Leave Social Media Recruitment to the Experts

There’s no doubt that clinical trial recruitment has become more complex than ever, as digital marketing and social media platforms outpace and outperform traditional patient recruitment advertising methods.

However with a little bit of advanced planning and knowing when to get external help from the experts, you can launch your study recruitment with relative ease.

Trialfacts has recruited for hundreds of clinical trials over the last decade and uses digital marketing platforms to help trial sponsors meet their recruitment goals.

Researchers don’t go into their careers in order to spend half their time trying to recruit participants.

If you want to see what it looks like to have an expert handle your recruitment, fill out the request form below.

Get a free, no obligation recruitment plan:

We’ll undergo our due diligence process and determine how many patients we can provide for your study (guaranteed).