Digital patient recruitment: How to reach the right patients

Ask any two trial sponsors how they feel about digital patient recruitment, and you’re likely to get two very different responses. Some have a positive experience and are able to reach their trial’s goals faster than they have with traditional methods. But others will warn you against a digital approach, citing unresponsive patients and wasted budget. It’s true that digital patient recruitment, in the wrong hands, can fail to reach the right audience. That’s why it’s critical to work with a patient recruitment company that’s up to the task.

So how can you tell whether a recruitment vendor will be able to bring in the results you need? Recruitment companies with the right experience tend to have a few strengths in common:

They’re not limited to Facebook. 

Facebook is the most powerful social media advertising platform out there – there’s a reason that advertisers spend billions on the platform every quarter. Its targeting capabilities work for a wide range of condition areas, and it’s important to work with patient recruiters who are experts at it. 

It’s not the perfect platform for every use case, however. Some conditions may be too small to have options for interest targeting. Or, the eligibility criteria for a condition may be highly specific in a common condition area. While ads may reach a substantial audience, they may reach many users who aren’t qualified for the trial. 

When starting conversations with vendors, ask them what digital channels they use in addition to Facebook for clinical trial recruitment, and in what scenarios they’ve found Facebook isn’t the best option. This question will help you get a sense of how much they rely on the world’s largest social network.

They plan their A/B tests in advance.

One challenge of clinical trial advertising is the need to have materials approved in advance by an IRB. Testing out different approaches, whether it’s targeting, images, or messaging, is critical to the success of any ad campaign. 

Ask the recruitment agencies you work with about their approaches to targeting and creating materials. Just like in science, an effective A/B test starts with a hypothesis. Smart patient recruitment companies create IRB submission packets with hypotheses in mind – and with backup plans, too. 

Watch for agencies that seem to feel confident in taking just one approach to recruitment. While it’s helpful for an agency to have a background in the condition area of your trial, the same targeting or advertising language might not be as effective the second time around. A company that can run a variety of A/B tests and optimize accordingly will likely be your best bet.

They have experience with the creative side, too.

In the marketing and advertising world, there are often agencies that specialize in one particular area. Some might be known for clever copywriting, while others are experts at ad targeting. 

In digital patient recruitment, it’s ideal to identify a company that can handle both the creative side and the technical targeting. Clinical trial advertising has strict guidelines, so it’s critical to find a company that’s familiar with the kinds of images and language that will be approved by an IRB. 

Ask to see multiple clinical trial advertising samples, and ask why they thought those materials were successful. This question will also offer a glimpse into tests or experiments they ran, and how they figured out what works best.

They know it can take a few tries to reach patients.

Meeting your trial’s deadlines is a top priority for sponsors. For the patients themselves? They most likely have plenty of other concerns beyond ads for your trial. That’s why it’s critical to connect with patients more than once about a trial opportunity. 

Effective recruitment companies will use cookie tracking, email drip campaigns, and ad retargeting to get back in touch with patients who may have expressed some interest in your trial, but dropped off before taking the final step. An easy-to-use prescreener experience is critical to this process, too.

Some digital patient recruitment companies have pre-existing databases of patients who have expressed interest in the past, as well. These patients can be reached over email, or potentially retargeted digitally. Ask potential vendors about how they ensure patients who have raised their hand once to take part are able to reconnect with trial opportunities, even if it didn’t work out the first time.

They verify patient information offline, too.

One of the most common complaints about digital patient recruitment revolves around low quality referrals. A research site may receive a list of email addresses to contact, but not get any responses. They may call phone numbers that no longer connect to the right person. 

Making an error when filling out a form online is extremely common. If you’re concerned about referral quality, work with a patient recruitment company that also verifies patient information in another way. Over the phone is the most common approach, but details can also be confirmed through labs or electronic health records. 

Digital patient recruitment can be a powerful way to spread the word about your trial – after all, the internet is the first place most of us go for health information. But in the wrong hands, it can turn into a waste of time and budget. Before choosing a patient recruitment company for your trial, make sure they have the right skill set for not just reaching patients online, but helping them take their next steps offline, too.