Will Facebook ad policy shake up clinical trial recruitment?

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Targeted advertising has been a tool used by numerous Facebook advertisers, including trial teams looking to reach out to and recruit patients for future studies. As of January 19, the social media platform has instituted a ban on detailed targeting that kicks out options based on “sensitive” areas, such as political causes, sexual orientation, and religious practices—and that stands to impact how clinical trials use Facebook to reach potential patient participants.

Matt Walz, CEO of Trialbee, weighed in on the ban in a recent Politico article​, along with leaders from other fields. Outsourcing-Pharma recently connected with the expert for additional insight as to what the move by Facebook could mean for social-media-based patient recruitment going forward

MW: By removing the ability to target advertisements to individuals based on certain interest areas, I think it’s clear that Facebook/Meta’s intent is to take a step forward in protecting their users’ privacy. This is a large focus at Trialbee as we utilize a significant amount of health data in developing patient personas and audience modeling – and as part of that, we have a very high bar for patient privacy.

Meta/Facebook has a significant amount of information available on users, which means they have a societal responsibility to set limits on what information can be used for targeting on their platform. Globally, in many countries beyond the US, there are already similar restrictions in place that protect an individual’s privacy from ad targeting based on personal information.

However, since we tend to be much more open in the US, I don’t see it as a ban as much as Facebook taking a step forward for users’ privacy and protecting abuses or discriminatory practices in advertising.

OSP: In their announcement of the planned change in November​, they said they were looking at targeting factors like health causes, sexual orientation, religion, and political beliefs/causes: “We’ve heard concerns from experts that targeting options like these could be used in ways that lead to negative experiences for people in underrepresented groups​,” adding these could be used to abuse FB users. Could you please comment on that?

MW: According to Meta/Facebook, they are addressing concerns raised by civil rights experts and policymakers, among others. I believe there is a need for greater dialogue and partnership between Meta/Facebook and the healthcare industry as well so that we can ensure responsible use of data while enabling information about potentially life-saving therapies to get to the patients who need them. It’s an important topic, and Trialbee would welcome an opportunity to share perspectives on clinical trial advertising on their platform and provide additional input.

OSP: Please detail how this potentially will impact clinical trial recruitment.

MW: I don’t believe this will have a significant impact on clinical trial recruitment. Facebook remains a primary platform for direct-to-patient participant recruitment, accounting for as much as 40%-50% of direct-to-patient recruited trial participants, by our estimates. However, since Facebook is not changing the ability to advertise for clinical trials on their platform, we don’t believe this will have much disruption.

Trialbee believes the future of healthcare and clinical research advertising is in unearthing opportunities for greater impact through analyses of underlying data. We’d like to see the industry move towards more sophisticated use of data and analytics to drive better outcomes in areas like clinical trial patient recruitment and rely less on models of predatory advertising that could potentially lead to a negative experience for underrepresented groups. This provides the greatest opportunity for improving the lives of people who would otherwise not be aware of treatments and therapies available to them.

More sophisticated patient recruitment strategies have moved away from Facebook’s interest targeting, as there are more effective audience targeting strategies available today. Trialbee moved away from health interest targeting some time ago.

For example, at Trialbee, we use about 10 different platforms deploying ads to thousands of properties, take note of respondents, then utilize this information as a learning loop into our audience modeling. We also feed those learnings back into Meta/Facebook’s modeling, which makes our advertising more effective on their platform.

Comparatively, we enroll significantly more clinical trial participants from Meta/Facebook using modern digital marketing strategies, like a tiered modeling/feedback loop, than when relying on Facebook’s native targeting capabilities.

So the exposure of this change is limited to less sophisticated patient recruitment tactics where organizations are trying to do the advertising themselves and relying solely on Facebook’s tools. For these companies, there will be some disruption in the form of learning new advertising strategies or partnering with a company that has them.

Perhaps there will be some increase in marketing spend in the near term while there is the need to test out and learn newer methods and platforms. Overall, and especially on a global scale where there are already limitations on privacy-sensitive ad targeting, we don’t see this change having a material impact on clinical trial recruitment.

I’ll add that this discussion creates a great opportunity for Facebook to partner with patient recruitment firms to understand our field more and find ways to improve the recruitment process on their platform, to the benefit of all the patients on their platform.

OSP: Is there any way study recruitment efforts can comply with these new restrictions and still connect with the right people on Facebook?

MW: This updated policy should not be viewed as a setback for research organizations. Rather, it presents an opportunity to start a dialogue between the healthcare industry and social media channels such as Facebook/Meta on how they can better promote health and research within their platforms.

Although the end goal for clinical research advertisers is to help get life-saving drugs to the market by enabling a quick recruitment process, they must also understand that concerns regarding consumer privacy are part of what makes many qualified patients reluctant to interact with targeted advertising. Recruitment teams can effectively reach their intended audiences without taking advantage of interest advertising and doing so will create a greater sense of transparency and trust with audiences as well.

Trialbee shares this initiative and sees this as an opportunity to develop more “patient-centric” advertising, which aims to create a more positive, personalized experience for users by providing information on why certain advertisements were presented to them. In effect, qualified patients will gain exposure to the right clinical recruitment information and will also be assured that sensitive personal information was not used to target them.

OSP: A software exec said, in the Politico article, that they think this won’t cripple study recruitment: “At the end of the day, the best salesperson is your doctor — it’s not the internet​.” Thoughts?

MW: While I agree that this update won’t cripple study recruitment going forward, I believe that it’s important to emphasize how much power and influence the internet has in regards to spreading awareness on clinical trial recruitment information. Doctors are still important resources, but in a world where more people are consulting the internet for healthcare information than ever before, it’s crucial that we continue to use it as a tool for improving the success rates of clinical trials.

Real-world data and analytics are used to drive our digital recruitment platforms because they provide solutions for some of the decades-old barriers associated with clinical trial studies, and we will continue to leverage these resources going forward. However, companies like Trialbee will continue to do so responsibly, with both the success of a trial study and the personalized care of each patient’s privacy in mind.

What do you think about Facebook’s new policy barring such targeted advertising? We’d love to hear your thoughts—please reach out to [email protected]​ to make your voice heard.

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