Facebook’s ad ban

Dr Matt Archer

Dr Matt Archer


Facebook’s parent company – Meta – recently implemented a number of advertising restrictions on all of its social media platforms that could have unintended consequences for the recruitment of patients for clinical trials. In this article we will take a closer look at these changes and their impact not only on medical research, but also the potential knock on effects on patients and the wider community. We will also outline why these restrictions have come into force, and how we anticipate overcoming these challenges to improve clinical trials for all involved.

What’s happened?

In January of this year a ban on advertisers targeting patients based on sensitive topics, including health, came into effect on all Meta owned platforms, including Facebook. The ban is part of a broader drive to remove ad-targeting options for what it calls “sensitive” categories, such as political causes, sexual orientation, and religious practices – as well as health. There are concerns that the changes will make it harder for life science companies to identify patients eligible for clinical trials. For many companies, targeted advertising on Facebook has become a popular – and cost effective – approach for identifying and reaching patients who may be eligible for clinical trials.
Previously, Facebook’s so-called “Detailed Targeting” options allowed advertisers to select individuals for targeted ads based on healthcare content they had interacted with. For example, a recruiter for an oncology study could have specifically targeted their ads only to individuals who had interacted with content on the subject of cancer (e.g. if they had previously visited cancer charity websites or other websites on cancer).
Now, however, these options have been removed from all Meta-owned social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. This leaves advertisers having to adjust their approach and now rely on much broader targeting categories. In other words, recruiters can now only target adverts to individuals based on their gender, age, and geographical location in order to find potential patients for their clinical trials.

"an estimated half of all trials currently relying on Facebook for patient recruitment”

Dr Matt Archer
The consequences of this change are expected to be felt far and wide within the medical research community , impacting not just drug and medical technology developers, but also patients. Manufacturers of drugs, medical devices and technologies – who rely on clinical trial data to bring their products to market – spend a large proportion of their development costs during the clinical trial phase. The increased costs of recruitment and time lost due to slower rates of recruitment would ultimately be passed onto patients in the form of higher prices. The changes also make it harder to recruit clinical trial populations that are adequately diverse As Dan Brenner, CEO of US medical recruitment firm 1nHealth told Politico recently, clinical trial recruiters “will feel a hit, making something that’s already hard, harder”.
With an estimated half of all trials currently relying on Facebook for patient recruitment, the removal of the ability to target specific patient groups on Meta’s platforms is likely to drive up the cost per acquisition of trial participants – by as much as 2.63x according to the costs of advertising on alternative platforms listed by WebFX.

Why have the changes been made?

While Meta says it still “strongly believes that the best advertising experiences are personalised”, it claims that wanting to meet the public’s evolving expectations around data privacy, and the need to address feedback from civil rights experts and policymakers were the reasons behind the changes. Specifically, Meta alleges that the decision to implement the changes was taken in response to “concerns from experts that targeting options like these could be used in ways that lead to negative experiences for people in underrepresented groups”.
There are however a number of political, PR and regulatory reasons why Facebook might feel the need to change its ad-targeting options. Facebook has been coming under fire over its detailed targeting options and their role in the spread of misinformation for a number of years. The company is also facing multiple federal antitrust lawsuits in the US over alleged illegal monopolisation practices. Additionally, these challenges come against the backdrop of increasing concerns around how consumer data is handled and accessed, and alongside a wider, global trend towards greater privacy and more data control for users.
The notion that Facebook may be keen to address some of these PR concerns is only strengthened by the recent huge rebranding the company underwent in late 2021, which included changing the parent company’s name to ‘Meta’. Notably, Facebook recently reported a drop in its active users for the first time in its history, giving it an incentive to show how much its values are in line with current consumer sentiments. The resulting share price drop that followed only adds further questions as to the true motive of their stance change.
Finally, the evolving regulatory landscape relating to data privacy – including the EU’s stringent consumer data protection laws (i.e. GDPR) – means that by removing these specific targeting options, Meta has – for now, at least – conceded its battle against GDPR and chosen to align with the current regulations, therefore avoiding potential penalties.

What is the best way forward for study recruiters?

Facebook is the world’s largest social network, and has become a powerful tool for enabling clinical trial recruitment. However, restricting advertisers’ ability to target populations based on their health categories will clearly limit the platform’s effectiveness as a recruitment tool going forwards. The solution? Smarter, more creative, and more sophisticated ways to build connections with the most active and motivated patient communities.

The power of listening

Neucruit uses its proprietary technology to connect with patient communities through social listening. People today live their lives out on social media platforms,often feeling comfortable enough to speak out without hesitation, ask questions and have real-time conversations with others online. This means that there is a huge amount of insight into behaviours, interests, opinions, and unmet needs of patients out there available to clinical trial sponsors. Harnessing this invaluable resource can be game-changing for recruitment strategies.
Having the more authentic and detailed insight into the lifestyles, motivations and daily realities of your patient communities that social listening provides can enable you to craft more meaningful recruitment campaigns that resonate better with patient communities. Identifying patients’ unmet needs also gives you the opportunity to actively meet them and in so doing build trust and engage with your patient community.
By using Natural Language Processing (NLP) – a branch of artificial intelligence (AI) that enables computers to analyse spoken word and text – to analyse real-time data aggregated from the over 25 million health-related conversations initiated online everyday, Neucruit helps you to identify the patient micro communities that are the most active and motivated, and therefore most likely to be receptive to participating in a clinical trial.
Neucruit can help you not only to know who to target and where to run your recruitment campaigns, but, by listening to the language being used by patients in their online discussions, it can also help you know how to create messaging in the language and tone that is the most relatable to your patients.
Neucruit’s social listening software will also help you to identify the micro influencers that matter most to your patients. Finding out who your patient communities listen to and trust the most enables you to use their voice to strengthen your creative campaign and build greater connection with your patients.
Social listening therefore allows you to put your patient communities at the heart of your feasibility, engagement and recruitment efforts by giving you a more in depth and authentic understanding of your patients’ interests, unmet needs and motivations.
Once the most active patient communities have been identified through social listening, Neucruit’s outreach continues further by communicating directly with patients using its conversational AI technology. These communications are initiated in real-time, automatically responding when a patient has posted or commented, ensuring that patients are reached out to when they are at their most engaged with the topic

Optimise your campaign

Another key consideration for digital recruitment campaigns no longer able to use Facebook’s Detailed Targeting for health categories is optimisation of the advertising campaign. Neucruit analyses and reports on campaign conversion data to enable you to consistently make adjustments throughout your campaign to ensure you are always targeting the right patients, at the right time, in the most effective way. This perfect trio combines to create the greatest onboarding of patients.

Having a dedicated trial microsite

Finally, having a dedicated site for your trial can be another important measure for maximising the effectiveness of your recruitment campaign. Neucruit uses insight gained from social listening to build two prototype study microsites, which are then user-tested within your patient community, before launching the chosen, custom-made site. Having a dedicated microsite for your trial allows potential participants to learn more about the trial. Another bonus of having Neucruit develop a dedicated study microsite is that site details can then be shared with patient advocacy groups, who can in turn share the link within their network, including on their own social media groups. This not only increases the reach of a campaign, but is a more sensitive way of engaging with patients.
So, the removal of ad-targeting for medical conditions on Facebook and Meta’s other platforms
does present a challenge to recruiters, and has the potential to drive up costs for everyone
including the end user, namely the patient. However, intelligent approaches combining social
listening with other AI technologies offer legitimate and powerful alternatives for accelerating
recruitment as well as improving diversity among clinical trial populations.