Navigating “Geo-Fencing” and “Geo-Conquesting” Marketing Strategies to Recruit Clinical Trial Participants

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“Geo-targeted” (as in geographically targeted) digital advertising is far from being the “new kid on the block.” From Facebook to Google to Instagram and YouTube, ads can easily be delivered to individuals who are perfectly matched by age, gender, language, socioeconomic status, education level, social interests, location, and more. But what if you could target patients who are currently sitting in a waiting room at their doctor’s office or, better yet, are at a competing research facility, screening for another clinical trial? “Geo-fencing” and “geo-conquesting” are the buzz words motivating nearly every industry around the globe. These terms refer to the concept of location-based data and customer tracking, which is now making its way to the world of clinical trial recruitment.

A geo-fence is a virtual perimeter around a real-world geographic area that is created for location-based services, such as GPS, to track the location of all people with mobile phones who enter that area. Geo-conquesting refers to the competitive digital advertising that marketers employ to lure potential customers within a particular geo-fence away from their competitors.

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For example, imagine a situation in which a large pharmaceutical sponsor is seeking to enroll adult patients who have type 1 diabetes for a phase 3 interventional study but is having trouble recruiting patients. With geo-fencing, the sponsor enlists the support of an agency to design and implement a centralized mobile advertising campaign focused on delivering banner ads strategically to patients who are visiting endocrinologists within 15 miles of the sponsor’s investigator sites. The ad lists a site’s normal business hours and is displayed on a person’s phone only while he or she is actively engaged in social media, news, and health applications.  

At the same time, the sponsor is also targeting support groups and events for type 1 diabetes, so that those who attend a meeting or participate in a diabetes fundraiser walk can receive the banner ad on their phone within a designated time of the event. 

Concurrently, an investigator’s site in southern California is conducting the study but is having trouble finding patients, since another research unit close by is recruiting for a similar patient population for another sponsor. In comes geo-conquesting, in which the site uses investigator-dedicated recruitment funds to run mobile ads within a geo-fence placed around the competing research unit to make the patients there aware that they have options to consider before joining a particular research study. 

These types of advertising are rapidly moving into the clinical trials space, but do they work and are they ethical? It’s not hard to accept that Americans are spending more and more time on their phones each day—more than 2 hours on average—or that more than 90% of their usage time is spent on apps. Mobile ads have been proven successful in clinical trial recruitment programs. The huge range of data that digital advertising offers can help advertisers narrow their focus and find their target audience more efficiently and precisely.

Mobile ads also naturally lend themselves to a better ROI. Marketers can tweak placements in real time, test multiple campaigns simultaneously, and generate comprehensive reports that enable fast-paced decision making. In the clinical trials space, where budgets are surely limited but quick results matter, it can be a “win-win.” 

Despite the potential benefits, many worry about geo-targeted advertising’s place in our highly regulated industry, and they are also concerned about protecting patients’ privacy. Simply targeting an individual who is presumably visiting a specific type of doctor can itself be revealing. Is this approach ethical? Is it different from advertising for a particular drug or device in a waiting room? Since mobile advertising is a form of general advertisement, HIPAA likely does not play a role. Advertisers do not have to know an individual’s private health information before delivering an ad. However, institutional review boards, consumer protection groups, and other ethical review boards will have to move with the times and take a stand on the acceptability of targeted ads in the healthcare space. 

Less than 25% of the population has participated in clinical research, and surveys demonstrate that less than 50% of the population are aware that a clinical trial is even an option.

Less than 25% of the population has participated in clinical research, and surveys demonstrate that less than 50% of the population are aware that a clinical trial is even an option. Geo-fencing and geo-conquesting advertising strategies, including mobile ads, can be especially effective in motivating patients, especially in the United States, where participation in clinical trials is significantly lower than in other countries. Such strategies engage and bring awareness to patients who may never have considered a clinical trial as a potential component of a healthcare program.

Mobile marketing strategies for clinical trial recruitment are no longer an optional consideration. Today, every trial manager should at minimum consider whether digital advertising is right for their study. Ultimately, the faster and more effectively we can recruit for research, the quicker we can find and deliver therapies that reach the unmet needs of our patients. 

Written by Jeanine M. Estrada, MBA - Senior Director, Clinical Trials, at Artcraft Health

Bill Lieve