Sonar: Facebook Patient Recruiting

The possibilities are endless


Social media channels and companies have realized the benefits of attracting more and more audiences, and businesses do not hesitate to spend a fortune to get their space in the online market. Social media is a freeway for companies to get some sensitive data about their clients. Therefore, in the midst of online competition, clinical trial recruitment is also becoming more and more focused on social media and Facebook, in particular.

Clinical trial recruitment is among the most important aspects to consider when conducting a study (Topolovec-Vranic & Natarajan, 2016). Recruiting participants for medical studies is crucial, but it often leads to delays, negative outcomes, and incredible costs for the whole study. Even the best research idea, which might be supported by a creative team and advanced technological methods, can fail due to ineffective or delayed clinical trial recruitment.


The tricky part is not only to attract participants but to find eligible and representative subjects for your study, and keep your target population motivated and engaged throughout the whole study. As mentioned above, it’s not only the size of the sample or the participants’ characteristics that should be considered: timing is also challenging. In fact, figures reveal that less than 10% of studies are executed on time due to bad clinical trial recruitment practices (“e-Recruiting: Using Digital Platforms, Social Media, and Mobile Technologies to Improve Clinical Trial Enrollment,” 2013).


Clinical Trial Recruitment: Conventional Practices Versus Social Media

For years, scientists – from medical professionals to psychologists, have taken advantage of some conventional methods to recruit participants. Job boards, posters in clinics and pharmacies, flyers, letters, newspapers, TV, radio, are some of the conventional ways to promote a study. Let’s also not forget about the powerful impact of word of mouth. However, classical methods, mainly printed media and press advertisements, don’t guarantee successful recruitment in today’s technology-driven society.


Therefore, social platforms have become a potential hit for trial recruitment. Experts can easily seize this opportunity in order to improve their recruitment effectiveness.

Facebook and Clinical Trial Recruitment


The number of social channels and apps is increasing every single day. So does the number of people who interact online. Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, so many places where users can share, like, or comment. However, what’s the first association that comes to your mind when you think of social media? Isn’t it Facebook? Yes, it should be. Businesses benefit from Facebook, and as a survey presented by Hubspot shows, 42% of marketers admit that Facebook helps companies expand, stand out, and of course, make a profit (“12 Revealing Marketing Stats About Facebook for Business,” 2017).


Not surprisingly, medical studies have also shown interest in Facebook. With expensive and inefficient conventional methods for recruiting participants, experts have implemented Facebook into their clinical trial recruitment practices. Data shows that Facebook can be very beneficial for the recruitment of young people, participants in online surveys, cardiovascular-related trials, smoke cessation cases, and even longitudinal studies. Also, social media is one of the most powerful recruiting techniques to engage an adequate number of hard-to-reach participants and to conduct various observational studies (Topolovec-Vranic & Natarajan, 2016).


Large Population Base


With a worldwide user base, experts can reach a lot of potential participants. There’s no need to limit your search: the whole world is yours. With the opportunity to reach people worldwide, Facebook is becoming a great tool to recruit participants for trial studies and cross-country research. The massive user base includes patients, caregivers and actually, all kind of people. Social media also gives you the opportunity to explore the vast diversity of Facebook users and increase the number of your participants.

For instance, Nash et al. 2017 compared the first 20 months of their randomized controlled clinical trial across Australia and the 4-month Facebook recruitment campaign they employed (after the first 20 months), and revealed that their Facebook advertisement was associated with an increase in participants. They observed an average increase from 1.8 to 7.3 participants a month (P<0.05) in the Australian Capital Territory, and from 4.0 participants to 9.3 recruited participants a month (P<0.052) in Tasmania.

Specify Your Search


Recruiting eligible and relevant samples is crucial for each clinical trial. You wouldn’t recruit healthy kids for a study on cardiovascular problems, would you? Well, Facebook also gives you the chance to specify your search. Social profiles are a bouquet of personal information. You can specify age, gender, and race. Many researchers fear that by using Facebook to recruit participants for their clinical trials, they may target only young people. While it’s true that some studies show that the average age of participants has shown a slight decrease, Facebook users are all age.


Do you want to target Millennials living in a cosmopolitan Asian city or people over 65 that represent a minority group? Go online! Facebook can help you in the clinical trial recruitment process. In fact, Nash et al. 2017 revealed that Facebook recruitment is highly beneficial for smaller regional cities because in large metropolises commuting may become a burden for some participants.


Cost-effectiveness: It Pays Off


Although scientists would give anything in the name of research, we should admit that conducting a study is expensive. Clinical trial recruitment is one of the aspects that cost a lot. Even though calculating the cost of all recruiting methods is difficult, it’s been proven that in the long term recruiting via social media is more than cost-effective.


Why? Simply because it guarantees more participants! For instance, Nash et al. 2017 explored the effect of Facebook advertising on recruitment into a blood pressure clinical trial. The team calculated the daily cost was $25/day for News Feed ad and $50/day for right-side panel ad (in Australian dollars) for Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory and $30/day for News Feed ad and $100/day for right-side panel ad for Queensland. Although these figures might seem high, in fact, they only prove the effectiveness of social media recruitment: after the Facebook campaign, researchers managed to increase recruitment, with which their recruiting method paid off. On the other hand, Frandsen et al. 2016 also concluded that using social media as a recruiting method is more cost-effective, especially in the initial screening process. The cost to obtain a screen respondent was $22.73, which was much lower than any other conventional recruiting method ($29.35).


Be in Control


As an examiner, using social media channels give you the chance to exercise more control over the screening process. Facebook, for example, can help you choose a specific target group and various advertising frameworks. The targeting capabilities are very helpful. One can specify a location, ethnicity, language, age, and gender. To set another example, Nash et al. 2017 showed that Facebook clinical trial recruitment is highly effective for studies on cardiovascular-related topics, and in fact, their inclusion criteria were: men and women with high blood pressure, aged 35–69 years, currently taking medications.


Most of all, you can refine your audience based on interests and behaviors. Although some users don’t share much on their Facebook profiles, Facebook has many other ways to collect personal information: keywords, pages people like, ads clicked in the past, and even Google searches.


Also, researchers can control the number of clicks and costs, respectively. It’s been proven that medical ads on Facebook perform relatively well. The average click-through rate is .83%, the average cost per click – .83%, the average conversion rate – 11%, and the average cost per action – $12.31 (“Social Media & Clinical Trial Recruitment”). Compared to other industries, the use of Facebook for clinical trial recruitment is more than beneficial.


Last but not the least, when experts rely on social media channels (Facebook, in particular) for clinical trial recruitment, they can also decide on the types of ads and the various placement options. In general, Facebook has four placement options – on a desktop News Feed, on a mobile News Feed, on the right side of the page, and on an Instagram account. All ads include a header, an image, a call-to-action element, and user-engagement options. In fact, the famous thumbs up and comments we associate Facebook with are the so-called user-engagement options. So if you don’t want a single comment to backfire, you can simply disable these options. For example, Nash et al. 2016 employed more than one: ads placed in the right-side panel of the Facebook News Feed and ads placed directly into the News Feed through the University of TAS Facebook page. Of course, one should focus on the official page of the study where the respondents would be redirected. URLs are usually placed in the so-called call-to-action area. Experts say that pages should be easy to reach, designs should be simple and the purpose of the study should be communicated accordingly (“e-Recruiting: Using Digital Platforms, Social Media, and Mobile Technologies to Improve Clinical Trial Enrollment”). In other words, keep medical terms short.


When it comes to clinical trial recruitment, social media and Facebook in particular, advertising for recruitment changes rapidly. Although there are various benefits, such as large reach, cost-effectiveness, and specific targeting options, one of the main concerns is how to motivate people. One of the suggestions to keep people engaged in both the enrollment and the completion process is to include prescreening questions. Such questions would help researchers attract not only potential subjects but eligible and conscientious subjects.


In fact, from diabetes to Alzheimer’s, the wide range of studies proves that one model can’t fit them all, so many factors should be taken into consideration. Not surprisingly, studies on the potential benefits and possible risks of using Facebook and other social media channels indicate that for any successful clinical trial recruitment, multiple approaches need to be implemented. As most of the studies have focused on Facebook, a suggestion is to design studies that could indicate any potential effects other social media platforms would have on clinical trial recruitment.


To sum up, each medical study relies on clinical trial recruitment. Interestingly enough, many participants report that they would participate only if they were better informed. Thus, the main aim of each study is to spread more and more awareness and attract participants. Social media is a great way to attract one’s attention; the combination of visuals, text, and links is a great way to promote a clinical trial and recruit participants. As Nash et al. 2017 revealed, Facebook can reach a proportion of the population potentially interested in clinical trial participation more successfully than other methods. In fact, Facebook gives experts the opportunity to reach billions of people, refine their target search and improve the cost-effectiveness of their scientific endeavors. What’s more, Facebook users are all age, so researchers should not fear the possible exclusion of older participants.


In an era where technology plays a crucial part in people’s lives, researchers are becoming more and more interested in social media as a tool to recruit participants for clinical trials. Let’s hope that with billions of users and hours spent on the Internet, people would be more likely to contribute to all medical, psychological, and scientific advancements. In the end, sharing is caring, and all of us should give a Like to science.


  1. Frandsen, M., Thow, M., & Ferguson, S. (2016). The Effectiveness Of Social Media (Facebook) Compared With More Traditional Advertising Methods for Recruiting Eligible Participants To Health Research Studies: A Randomized, Controlled Clinical Trial. JMIR Research Protocols.
  2. Nash, E., Gilroy, D., Srikusalanukul, W., Abhayaratna, W., Stanton, T.,Mitchell, G., Michael Stowasser, M., & Sharman (2017). Facebook advertising for participant recruitment into a blood pressure clinical trialJournal of Hypertension.
  3. Topolovic-Vranic, J., Natalajan, K., (2016). The Use of Social Media in Recruitment for Medical Research Studies: A Scoping ReviewJournal of Medical Internet Research.
  4. e-Recruiting: Using Digital Platforms, Social Media, and Mobile Technologies to Improve Clinical Trial Enrollment (2013, October 14). Retrieved from
  5. Social Media & Clinical Trial Recruitment (n.d.). Retrieved from
  6. 12 Revealing Marketing Stats About Facebook for Business (2017, September 28). Retrieved from

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