Last week, Facebook limited the ability of advertisers to target users based on their health conditions or interests in health-related content. Many of our clients have been asking about the implications of the change for their recruiting efforts so I’d like to take this opportunity to explain what it all means.

First, let’s take a step back to talk about the role digital media plays in patient recruitment. Like nearly every other marketer in the industry, I did not major in Patient Recruitment and Minor in Retention. I become aware of this industry in the mid-90s while selling radio advertising at a radio station and learned that pharmaceutical companies were distributing funds to sites to advertise for local research participants. This isn’t my charming elevator pitch, so I’ll end that part there, but as you know, patient recruitment pre-dates the advent of search engines and social media. From the time I got involved in clinical research until mid-to-late 2000s, an advertiser’s primary paid communication strategies were print and broadcast advertising. Digital advertising such as paid search was introduced sometime later and while Facebook launched in 2007, it took years before it was adopted in a meaningful way by the patient recruitment industry.

In general, digital advertising was everything we were looking for as it had allowed us to narrowly target populations in a way no other medium before it could. For example, Google allows us to seek out people in specific geographic areas who are actively searching for content (such as information on a condition or treatment option). This has been wildly useful but does not come without great cost and fierce competition. Sometimes, we are even competing with ourselves with different campaigns taking place targeting the same people for the same client. Facebook, has become what the most skilled digital marketers (that’s us) rely on for a great majority of recruitment efforts. Generally it brings the lowest costs per referral and randomization, and could still be effective with even the smallest marketing budgets. While Facebook does not reach an active “searcher” like Google, it has allowed highly customizable geotargeting (down to zip) by demographic (age/gender), and prior to last week, by condition. These targeted and precise efforts are very much needed as recruiting the right people quickly is what leads to the clinicals that are required to bring new medicines to those who need it.

Enter the change – Facebook no longer allows advertisers to target an audience for, for example, an Alzheimer’s disease study by putting their messages directly in the feeds of those who have expressed an interest in Alzheimer’s disease. With this change, Facebook has eliminated advertisers’ ability to use the platform for the primary reason they were – the ability to precisely target. With this change Facebook is only as good as, well, “broad” casting and should be viewed as mass versus precision media.

So, what do these changes mean and are we without solutions?

It means advertisers can no longer direct their messages to a target audience with pinpoint precision. The patients that may have been found are still there, but they are Waldo in a billion-person Where’s Waldo poster. It means that advertisers will need to advertise more to reach the right people, which of course translates into potentially higher advertising budgets and lower qualified targets reached. Unfortunately, if sponsors don’t factor additional expenses for advertising, enrollment may suffer.

Don’t blame me, I’m just the “instant messenger.” 

As social media and the ease of digital collection of information about people continues to expand, a whole host of privacy concerns come to the forefront. As a result, it means that someone thought that this privacy matter (on a platform on which people routinely share freely with the world what they ate for lunch as well as anything remotely health related) has dwarfed people’s need to learn about drug development. I’ll leave my politics there, but as someone whose organization was privileged to help bring a very well-known treatment for COVID-19 to market, it might not have happened as quickly with such restrictions…so dare I say the consequences may be more life or death as they are privacy.

Thankfully, Patient Advertising Guru has always preached a diverse, multi-channel approach. Most times there is not just one way to recruit patients. we’ve been smitten with social media like everybody else — even having built a successful spin-off, Research Study Rockstar, which provides social media advertising for sites and sponsors — but we never wrote off the “OG” broadcasters: television and radio, which still possess the largest audiences anywhere, even with the fragmentation of streaming and commercial-skipping technology, etc. There is a reason why we see pharmaceutical advertising on television every day. There’s a reason so many online properties (including Google and Facebook) advertise on television every day. There’s a reason why one has never seen dead air where a commercial should be. It’s because it works. I dare you to make it through a week and not see a commercial for Humira®, Ozempic®, Trulicity®, or Dupixent®. For that matter, try not seeing a commercial promoting a website like Booking.com, or Travelocity.com, or Amazon. Facebook itself has turned to TV to promote itself… ironically, boasting its challenges with privacy matters.

People still watch television and they still listen to radio. If advertisers didn’t see value from it, believe me they would advertise elsewhere. Television advertising still reaches a target audience. It still provides information. It still motivates people to respond – and generating that immediate response (a call or a click) is the primary objective to patient recruitment advertising. 

This is not to say it’s game-over for social media-driven patient recruitment…just that the game just got a lot more expensive to play – and our hand has been forced to use more of our tools. And by the way, if you’re a Guru, or are represented by one – we still have workarounds. I would tell you them, but you’d be invading my privacy. You’ll have to hire us for that…

 And that brings us back to our patient recruitment strategy – and why we’ve always preached diversity. Whether it’s a global pandemic or online privacy issues suddenly making our mission to recruit patients even more challenging – there are always ways to connect with those we need to in order to further research and development.

So, rejoice TV networks. Thanks to Facebook, their price, may no longer be right.