Depending on Meta for health research advertising? You could well be missing out

Despite Facebook’s potential, depending on the social media for health research advertising comes with its own set of challenges.

Recruiting participants for clinical research is a crucial step – and, for many, the greatest risk – in the development of new ways to manage health, from routine care plans to rehabilitation, treatments and therapies. The rise of social media and paid social media advertising, particularly Facebook (owned by Meta), present opportunities for research studies to reach wider audiences and see faster participant recruitment results than ‘traditional’ recruitment methods (think radio ads, posters in surgeries and newspaper articles). Despite the potential (over 22.5 million Aussies have profiles as of June 2022 according to Meta, over 80% of the population), depending on Facebook for coverage comes with its own set of challenges that could put your study at even greater risk. 

One such challenge involves audience targeting. Through Facebook’s advertising manager, organisations access basic demographic targeting to reach Facebook users of specific ages, gender and location. Interest targeting is also a key feature in Facebook advertising manager, through the ability to reach users of certain lifestyle interests – although the extent to which these are updated is limited.  With respect to user privacy, Facebook turned off health-related interests in 2022, thus limiting precise targeting options to show advertisements to users interested in a particular medical condition.  Trying to recruit eligible participants for a clinical research study meant organisations need to find workarounds for this limitation to reach the right population. 

Advertising cost is often a challenge for small or underfunded studies. Advertising spend on Facebook advertising is directly linked to the number of Facebook users who can see an advertisement about a study and how many times a user can see advertisements about a study. Associated with Facebook advertising is also the cost of developing a targeting strategy and advertisement copies that resonate with the goals and needs of potential participants while abiding to Facebook’s advertising policies. It is recommended that recruitment costs are included in research study budgets to comprehensively cover the running of a study.  In short, Facebook has become more expensive and less tactile in its advertising offering, especially for small businesses. 

Social media habits are influenced by an enormous range of factors including users’ connections and their use of social media, cultural background, trust regarding personal information and their most comfortable language.  Members of the Asian communities in Australia, for example, might be more likely to use WeChat (over 700,000 users locally) or Weibo. The popularity of different social media platforms among different ethnic and cultural groups is influenced by cultural norms and language barriers.  Additional effort is required to adapt advertising strategy and online copy in respect of the differences in social media habits, which can come with further cost implications. 

A critical point of consideration in digital recruitment is the digital spaces that a potential participant may be present in. Facebook is a wide-reaching social media but potential participants are also active on other websites and social media platforms. The Mere-Exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them – also an important marketing concept that applies to the success of digital recruitment campaigns. Reaching potential participants with study advertising across all digital spaces they are present in can complement this effect for better advertising efficiency. 

Opin has had great success mirroring advertising approaches of the FMCG world with health research. One example of real-world strategies we adopt involves the avoidance of campaign spend during windows when spikes in consumer advertising spend render it pointless, such as Christmas Day or major election periods (there are some fascinating exceptions!)  Another side to this connects to Meta’s own commercial model – their algorithms actively prioritize content that generates engagement, making it sometimes difficult for health research ads to compete with more visually appealing, controversial or sensational content. 

Recruiting participants through Facebook can be an effective way to reach a large and diverse audience quickly.  However, it’s important to be aware of challenges and limitations when depending on one channel.  Organizations should consider these challenges and weigh the pros and cons alongside other channels that might offer greater exposure to different populations, cultures and engagement.