Influencers are ushering in a new era of authentic and impactful engagement across direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands, including pharmaceutical marketing; so, why aren’t we seeing the same shift in engaging influencers for clinical trial recruitment (CTR)? The truth is: their application in CTR is still in its early stages. While two thirds of patients go to Dr. Google before asking their own doctor about health concerns, the majority of those patients were not reassured by what they found and ultimately made the visit to see their doctor, their most trusted resource. The influencer voice, however, introduces not ¬only a sense of trust, but credibility in the form of empathy and understanding. As clinical trial protocols grow in complexity and face new restrictions and regulations, the need for a flexible and adaptable recruitment strategy is becoming increasingly evident. Social media platform restrictions, limitations on search ads and keywords, and stringent review processes all pose additional challenges. There is an urgent unmet need to revitalize CTR with new engaging, authentic, and effective tactics, and perhaps most importantly—instill a sense of trust and credibility outside of the doctor’s office.

Patient recruitment is a major barrier to successful trials, leading to delays of up to 80% across all clinical trials. We’re aware of two major barriers in patient recruitment: lack of knowledge and fear/mistrust. Additionally, we know the Connections Accelerator approach instills trust and connection among audiences—a critical component of any recruitment strategy.

Typically, a patient recruitment strategy involves site-level efforts (physician referrals, EHR review, doctor-to-patient letters, direct calls from site staff, study listing on websites), and central recruitment through a third-party (social media ads, search ads, display ads, dedicated landing page). Site-based recruitment is limited by staff availability and current practice patients, but is often more successful than central recruitment for a few reasons: established trust with the practice, locality to site, and more personalized outreach. Central recruitment casts a much wider net, reaching much larger audiences, but at a significant cost. Conversion rates are low, costs are high, and the messaging is very impersonal.

Fifty years of behavioral science research has shown that what others say shapes our behavior, and we know that influencer marketing draws deeper connections that spark behavior change. Now, we can apply this knowledge to CTR. The Connections Accelerator approach harnesses this power, combining the benefits of extensive reach and a focused connection and trust.

For many years, CTR has mainly relied on investigator referrals, particularly for hard-to-reach populations. However, doctors represent just one type of influencer —the Thought Leader. In contrast to a trial investigator, a Thought Leader’s influence goes beyond simply sharing trial information with a limited patient pool.  This party is deeply embedded in the science of the therapeutic area, providing credible knowledge to their audiences.

Similarly, the Role Model knows the condition inside and out, but on a more personal level. They are a trusted resource within the community, are widely respected, and know how to inspire action. With lack of clinical trial education being a major roadblock in recruitment, the Role Model can leverage their in-the-know persona to take the educational approach.

The Real-Life Expert takes the personal connection one step further, encouraging a two-way conversation about a particular indication or health condition. They offer an empathetic point of view with shared experiences. From a clinical trial perspective, the messaging may revolve around alternative care options(such as participating in a clinical trial)  and how to be your own health advocate.

The Advocate may not have personal experience with a particular medical condition, but this type of influencer is highly beneficial for speaking to audiences that may be parents of children with a particular medical condition, are caregivers, or otherwise make health decisions on behalf of others. The Advocate can empathize from the caregiver point of view, inspiring action among a critically important audience for CTR.  

CTR strategy must continue to evolve alongside the evolution of new restrictions, regulations, and more challenging protocols. Over the last three years, we’ve seen significantly more social media platform restrictions, adding to the challenge of sharing the right information with the right audiences. Medical conditions can no longer be targeted through Meta, more restrictions have been placed on search ads and keywords, and study landing pages are thoroughly reviewed on Twitter—banning language such as “investigational treatment” or “has the potential to treat.” Protocols have and will continue to grow in complexity.

Recruitment for clinical trials isn’t all that different from direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical marketing, and we’ve seen a paradigm shift in how pharma companies are leaning more and more on influencers and finding positive results. Patient trust in the industry is low; only 58% of Americans trust pharma companies. This trust is likely lower when coupled with the fear of risk in taking part in a clinical trial.

Influencers have a force that can and should be used for good; applying our existing knowledge in the influencer space and reframing our objectives around CTR is a great place to start. Through Connections Accelerator, we can drive efficiency through cohesive omnichannel activation, utilizing influencer content in conjunction with traditional digital campaigns to meet patients at every stage in their journey.  

Interested in learning how Connections Accelerator can supercharge your recruitment efforts? Reach out to [email protected] to learn more.

About the Author:

Laura Andrew is a senior Digital & Social Strategist at Syneos Health, bringing over 12 years of experience in digital marketing. Her background includes building social media strategies for healthcare and pharmaceutical companies, focusing on inspiring action through storytelling, and applying this knowledge to the development of digital recruitment campaigns and improving education around clinical trials.