One way to view the media landscape in 2011 is as a society-wide clinical trial for attention-deficit disorder in which 90 percent of the U.S. population has voluntarily enrolled. Working, walking, driving, shopping, eating, riding bikes, at the movies, attending to bathroom functions—most Americans keep one or both eyes and ears glued to small electronic screens. Such tiny devices offer deliciously addictive electrons of one type or another, and there is no going back to the pre-electronic world.

Does all this affect clinical trials? Yes. For some demographic groups, traditional or legacy ad formats are obsolete as some households trim cable TV costs from their tightening budgets. The standard newspaper ad or a radio spot will never reach a broad swath of the public, especially in younger populations and urban locations.

But for all the initial appearance of simplicity of sites such as Facebook, Twitter and their kindred dot-com time wasters, they pose special risks for a controversial industry like the pharmaceutical trade. There is an almost instant ability for the web to whip up contempt for any organization for infractions real and imagined. That warrants more care in plotting an interactive ad strategy for clinical development companies.

Going Electronic

To navigate these waters intelligently, we rang up Rahlyn Gossen, a former clinical research coordinator who now has her own firm, Rebar Interactive. She’s based in New Orleans and has a savvy and perceptive way of looking at how modern clinical trial sites should go about the task. She has a blog that is consistently informative.

For starters, Gossen is a general fan of the new tools. “Technology and digital media have long been a passion of mine,” she reports. “I saw there were things that could be improved with technology and digital media.”

As with so many topics in a change-resistant drug industry, some clinical sites are just doing what they’ve always done. “A lot of sites are continuing to use traditional advertising methods and having not always great results,” Gossen notes.

Site Aid

So she is targeting her efforts to clinical research sites, particularly those having a nascent online effort and aspirations for better results. “They can really use a lot of help,” she says. “A lot of sites are interested in using digital media. They know that is where things are going and that at some point they are going to have to adapt.”

Gossen believes in rigorously comparing ads, or types of print and electronic media, and making rational decisions in a quantitative way. ”I do a lot of testing so that I am constantly improving the campaign,” she says.

The interactivity of the Internet is probably the aspect of such campaigns that Gossen raves about the most. And she is not just talking about what prospective patients can do when submitting medical information in the screening process. It’s also incumbent upon sites, she says, to study what works and allocate more advertising resources to successful approaches.

Technology, she says, makes it easy to refine or change an ad message or strategy during patient recruitment. “You have more ability to figure out what is working well for you and what is not working for you,” Gossen says. “It's a continual process. It's very difficult to do that sort of thing with traditional media.”

Smart Tweeting

She says it’s important to distinguish between social media in a generic sense—and digital advertising with a tactical goal. More precision in terminology, Gossen says, might be helpful for people in the research landscape.

Twitter, as an example, is rolling out primitive advertising functions. But it is primarily a noncommercial social-media vector. That might not exclude Twitter from a conversation about a clinical site bolstering its reputation in colon cancer. But the same site might not want to combine a long, slow, reputation-burnishing effort on Twitter with an urgent need for 10 patients in the greater Houston metropolitan area.

“Social media needs to be a long term relationship-building, awareness-building tool,” Gossen says. “There are some challenges with social media, particularly with Twitter. If they were to just start out saying ‘join this trial,’ it is not consistent with relationship building and conversation that Twitter users expect. I don't think using Twitter for a study-specific campaign is going to work that well,” she states.

Facebook is another story. Its offerings for advertisers can be highly targeted to specific geographic areas. With hundreds of millions of registered users, Facebook can reach a high percentage of potential patients across all levels of income and education. Traditional media can’t zero in on any of that.

Peril for Laggards

The usage of smart phones in finding patients, she reports, remains at a preliminary stage. “You're only going to reach a limited portion of the population,” Gossen says. “It will have a more important impact on patient recruitment in the future.”

For the winners, however, it’s possible to augment the standard $5,000 per trial advertising budget, especially if the site can prove it accomplished something with the initial budget. “A lot of contract research organizations and sponsors, if they give you the initial $5,000, and you have results, you can go back and ask for more and they will give it to you,” she notes.

In some cases, Gossen predicts, sites that can’t use new online tools to find patients may have a less prosperous future. “There will be some sites that aren't able to improve their recruitment that are going to have a hard time staying in business,” she says.

Gossen is not enamored with traditional ways to find patients. “I am sure there are instances where traditional media work,” Gossen says. “But overall, the numbers show declining readership. Internet use is on the increase, while a lot of other traditional media are struggling.”