Note: This post has been adapted from a guest post series I wrote on behalf of AccrualNet and has been published here with their permission.
When I talk to clinical researchers about digital marketing strategy, their interest is most commonly focused on traffic sources. How can I recruit patients using Google Adwords? Should I use social media? Can I reach my patient population on Facebook?
Meanwhile, the most important element of that strategy is often an afterthought. This element is hugely under-appreciated in terms of its ability to generate impressive investment return for just about any clinical trial. It can single-handedly propel a recruitment campaign to success, or it can essentially light an online recruitment budget on fire.
Increasingly, websites are the hub of patient recruitment efforts, both online and offline. According to the Center for Information and Study on Clinical Research Participation (CISCRP), the Internet is now the top way that people find out about clinical trials. An effective website is the best thing you can do to turn these people into participants in your trial.
The ROI of Good Web Design
A poorly-designed patient recruitment website costs much more than wasted recruitment budget. What’s far more horrifying is the opportunity cost. Consider all of the patients that showed enough interest in a clinical trial to land on a recruitment website but hit the back button because of poor design. That’s a situation that’s bad for patients, and it’s bad for us.
So what is the opportunity cost or poor web design? Or put more positively, what is the ROI of good web design? That will depend on the specifics of your situation. But here’s a couple of (conservative) scenarios to illustrate just how much web design matters when recruiting patients for clinical trials.
Imagine you have a patient recruitment website averaging 40 visitors a day. No one put much thought into the website when it was designed, and it’s converting visitors to clinical trial referrals at a rate of 2%. You then realize that your website could be designed in a more patient-friendly manner. So you make some improvements, and the website begins converting at a rate of 3%.
This seemingly small difference in conversion rate (from 2% to 3%) results in 12 more patient referrals a month, or about 146 referrals a year.
Now imagine you get some additional recruitment budget and you bring your website’s daily visitor count up to 70 a day. With this increase in visitors and a 3% conversion rate, you are now getting 767 patient referrals a year. Had you not previously optimized your website, you’d only be getting 511 patient referrals a year.
That’s a difference of 256 patients a year.
By now it should be clear that attention to your website’s design can reap big patient recruitment returns. Conversely, a poorly designed website can severely undermine your patient recruitment efforts. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many patient recruitment websites that fall into the latter category. Let’s make sure your website isn’t one of them.
5 Principles for Designing Patient Recruitment Websites
What is good web design exactly? It’s about much more than aesthetics. Good design, at its core, is about problem-solving. But in order to solve a problem, a designer must first understand the problem. In our case, the problem is patient recruitment, and as we all know this problem is a tricky one!
Now let’s discuss 5 big ways you can use your website to attack the problem that is patient recruitment. This discussion is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather is to provide you a foundation for thinking about your patient recruitment website. To build on this foundation and help you generate ideas, I’ll wrap up this post with a practical resource for visual inspiration.
If you have a psychology background, you are probably familiar with the term cognitive load. Cognitive load theory provides guidelines “to assist in the presentation of information in a manner that encourages learner activities that optimize intellectual performance.” In essence, cognitive load theory is about presenting information so that people can understand it.
Clinical trial information is complex and can create high cognitive load if effort is not made to simplify it. When cognitive load is high, people are more likely to make errors or use stereotypes to process information. Do you know of any clinical trial stereotypes? The most common is probably “guinea pig.” This stereotype is not what we want people reverting to when presented with clinical trial information.
Reducing cognitive load is particularly important online, where people have been essentially conditioned to have very short attention spans. When people land on a website and cannot quickly (within seconds) tell if it’s relevant to them, they hit the back button. If that happens, you never get a chance to communicate your message.
Lesson: Take complex information and make it more cognitively digestible for potential participants.
Call To Action (CTA)
When designing your patient recruitment website, what is the next step you want your visitors to take? Should they call you? Should they complete a form?
Whatever action you want website visitors to take should be glaringly obvious. Your call to action will often be in the form of a button, though there are exceptions. Regardless, ensure that your call to action is very prominent and placed in optimal locations throughout your website.
Lesson: Tell your visitors what action they should take, and make it easy for them to take it.
Website forms are an efficient way to capture patient information. However, forms need to be created in a way that’s reassuring rather than intimidating for the patient. Intimidating forms will decrease your conversion rate.
For example, only ask what’s truly really necessary. Many patients lack awareness and trust of clinical trials. If you hit patients with lengthy forms requiring sensitive information before they’ve interacted with study staff, they may reconsider what could be very tenuous interest.
Lesson: Make form completion as frictionless as possible.
Know your audience. The phrase may be trite, but it’s certainly true in patient recruitment. And I’d take this phrase a step further. Empathize with your audience. The more you appreciate the perspective of your audience, the better you will be able to communicate with them.
Really take some time to identify common characteristics of your desired audience. Do they share particular demographics, psychographics, health journeys, etc? Do they use mobile phones? Research sites are particularly positioned to be effective here because they regularly interact with their audience. Take knowledge about your audience and apply it to how you present clinical trial information online.
Also realize that your desired audience may not necessarily be your desired patient population. According to Pew Internet, half of all online health information seeking is on behalf of someone else.
Lesson: Know and empathize with your audience.
Trust and Credibility
People judge a book by its cover. In this case, your website is your clinical trial’s online book cover. And people are judging that online book cover very quickly. According to research, visitors form an initial impression of your website in 50 milliseconds. That initial impression is based on appearance, with visitors looking for qualities like professionalism, neatness, and organization.
But the trust evaluation doesn’t end there. Website visitors continue to look for trust and credibility cues (good and bad) during every step of the browsing and transaction experience. Make sure that your website sends positive cues. Trust and credibility are particularly important given common misconceptions and distrust of clinical trials.
Lesson: Thread trust and credibility cues throughout the entire web browsing experience.
Practical Visual Inspiration
How can you practically apply these principles? A great place to start is the gallery for a Clinical Trial Visualization Redesign Challenge sponsored by Lilly. The goal of the challenge was to redesign complex clinical trial documents in a visually appealing and user-friendly manner. Competitors were given clinical trial documents and had to submit images and browser viewable files based on those documents.
The challenge resulted in some great designs, particularly from the challenge winners. And you can do more than view these designs. Under the challenge terms, all competitors agreed to release their designs into the public domain. So you can reuse these winning designs, including that of the challenge winner shown in the screenshot below.
What do you think makes a patient-friendly patient recruitment website? How might you improve your patient recruitment website in the future? What challenges have you run into when creating patient recruitment websites? Share in the comments or on Twitter.