Patient Recruitment: 3 Big Challenges With Social Media

With all of the chatter surrounding social media, some clinical research professionals hope that this exciting communications medium will remedy the industry’s patient recruitment woes. Unfortunately, it will not.

Certainly, social media can work well for specific studies under a relatively narrow set of circumstances. However, inherent limitations of the medium, combined with the realities of patient recruitment, prevent social media from being a major patient recruitment player.

That’s not to say social media has no value, nor do I intend to dissuade research professionals from using it. As an avid user of social media, I absolutely believe that it can have value in many areas of clinical trials, particularly with regard to feasibility research, branding, and business development. It can also work well as a complementary piece to an integrated marketing campaign. In another post, I explore how social media can be of use to research sites in particular:

3 Problems Social Media Can Solve for Research Sites

But it’s important to understand that social media is a distinct communications medium with unique strengths and weaknesses. These inherent characteristics prevent social media from being a go-to tool for study-specific recruitment campaigns. Before I explain why social media is not your recruitment panacea, I need to clarify some terminology that I’ve seen misused.

First, a Clarification

Patient recruitment social media

Social media is not your recruitment panacea

Social media does not require you to pay a social media platform for placement. So, for example, if you are paying Facebook for ads, those ads do not fall under the social media umbrella but are simply paid ads on a social media platform. If you have a Facebook page dedicated to a study, on the other hand, that would be considered social media.

Now that I’ve made that clarification, let’s go over the two primary reasons that social media is not your study recruitment panacea.

1. Social Media Will Not Drive Sizable Traffic

Even in a best case scenario, social media will not get your study in front of nearly the quantity of people required to create a successful recruitment effort. Internet users become aware of social media profiles through two primary avenues, via personal networks and by searching for profiles. Unfortunately, neither of these avenues are likely to lead to your study’s social media presence. Let me explain why.

The Challenge of Personal Networks

In the case of personal networks, social media users often become aware of consumer brands, products, and services through a recommendation from someone in their circle. With proper care and much nurturing, companies can even help facilitate these discussions, which is a great strategy in many industries. Unfortunately, these discussions rarely happen and are difficult to facilitate in the clinical trials industry. Lack of clinical trials awareness, public distrust of clinical trials, and common patient privacy concerns create an environment that is not conducive to discussion.

The most successful study recruitment strategies (online or otherwise) grab the attention of patients who would otherwise have no knowledge of your studies. With online display ads, for instance, you can pay to spread your message. But due to the nature of social media, you are reliant upon others to spread your message for you. Unfortunately, social media users aren’t exactly clamoring to spread the clinical trials message. Let’s face it. Your Valtrex study is not going viral (pun intended).

The Challenge of Awareness

Another way that Internet users come into contact with social media profiles is by searching for them. Because clinical trials awareness is low, it’s highly unlikely that Internet users will search for clinical trials related brands specifically. For instance, if you look at Quintiles’ Twitter followers, the vast majority are people with a professional interest in Quintiles tweets. These followers are not potential study participants.

Rather than look for brands, most potential patients will be seeking general clinical trials and disease-related information. Do you think Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn is where the majority of these patients go? No. Patients know that they are far more likely to find the information they seek with a visit to a search engine. So that’s where they go.

Granted, major search engines have started to integrate more social media links into their search results, but they are doing so sparingly. It’s highly unlikely that a research site’s Facebook profile or a tweet about a study will rank well for clinical trials related keywords.

Traffic Generation Requires Scalability

In order to generate sizable Internet traffic, your campaign must have the ability to scale. In the case of social media, the interest and support of social media users is an essential element to producing campaign scalability. Unfortunately, personal network limitations combined with low clinical trials awareness foster an inhospitable environment for scalability. And without this scalability, traffic volume will be limited.

In short, social media is rarely capable of generating the volume of traffic necessary to drive significant patient interest in a study.

2. Clinical Research is Too Regulated for Social Media

The regulated nature of clinical research does not lend itself well to the extremely dynamic and conversational nature of social media. If you think you can repeatedly throw out the same old boring IRB-approved message and elicit a positive reaction from social media users, think again. You’ll likely just annoy people.

Unfortunately, it’s highly difficult to mold your message appropriately for the medium given the realities of clinical research as an industry.

The FDA Won’t Save You

The highly anticipated FDA guidance on social media will not make the social media recruitment landscape any less challenging. FDA guidance is not exactly known for being transparent, and social media is a particularly difficult topic to tackle. In all likelihood, the guidance will raise as many questions as it answers.

fda social media

Regulatory landscape limits social media recruitment

Even if the FDA were to allow full social media freedom, there’s still the issue of your IRB. The approval required for patient recruitment materials will prevent you from talking about your studies in a natural and conversational way, which is the tone that social media users expect.

If you have social media accounts, it’s certainly worth sending your IRB-approved study messages out on occasion. But don’t go overboard with it. As a general rule your social media updates should only contain promotional content around 20% of the time. The rest of your content should be information of value to readers.

3. Social Media Requires a Long-Term Timeline

Study-specific patient recruitment campaigns are typically on a short-term timeline. The length of this timeline will vary depending on the type of study, but it is always finite with a set date to reach an enrollment target.

To truly harness the power of social media, you need a long-term timeline without an end date. A social media presence takes months if not years to fully actualize. In fact, the longer you maintain a good consistent social media presence, the more momentum you gain and the less “work” it becomes.

To borrow a concept from the financial services industry, consider the magic of compound interest, which has been described by some as the eighth wonder of the world. Here’s one explanation of its magic:

Here’s the gist: When you save or invest, your money earns interest or appreciates. The next year, you earn interest on your original money and the interest from the first year. In the third year, you earn interest on your original money and the interest from the first two years. And so on. It’s like a snowball — roll it down a snowy hill and it’ll build on itself to get bigger and bigger. Before you know it … avalanche!

Social media works in a very similar manner. You start out with your principal, and then you create interest on that principal. That interest creates interest and so on. Eventually, your social media presence starts to work for you rather than you working for it. And your social media presence appreciates the longer you have it.

The finite timeline for study-specific patient recruitment is incongruous with the nature of social media, which requires a long-term horizon to reach momentum and fully actualize.

So What Should I Do?

If you are looking for a great study recruitment solution, your time and money are much better spent on online ads. The three main problems with social media as a recruitment vehicle do not exist for paid online ads. You can get substantial traffic with paid ads, the medium is far more appropriate for the regulated nature of our industry, and paid ads work with short-term timelines.

And though social media may not drive study-specific recruitment, it can be valuable in other ways. With good planning, you can leverage social media for your clinical trials site.

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  1. John Needham says

    Social Media can not forgive the sins of poor study design. No study will enroll if the study does not appeal to the Investigator, Study staff and the human being with the medical condition.


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