Unlocking Clinical Trial Recruitment in the COVID-19 Era

It’s nearly impossible to identify a facet of our healthcare industry that hasn’t been directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It follows that the vast majority of health news and information is focused on the pandemic itself, as well as ways to stay safe and healthy. So, where does that leave the other 99 percent of products and services that are still vital to our long-term health and wellness? Marketing, lead generation and education of any kind now require that we step back and think hard about new approaches and more innovative methods to get your messages out there and meet your strategic goals. That would make common sense.

Yet many agencies find themselves addressing “COVID-era” business challenges through a lens that matches a time that’s come and gone. It’s vital that we take a hard look at once successful strategies and tactics across our marketing armamentarium and pressure-test them for the post-COVID era.

Most recently, Bliss and Next Practices Group industry leaders looked at the state of our Clinical Trial Recruitment marketing work and decided it was time to “flip it on its head” in this new era as we strive to hit the ultimate client objective: rapid enrollment.

The new obstacles

If you’re fortunate enough to work on potential COVID-19 treatments, you’ll confront a litany of unforeseen obstacles involved in trial enrollment. Conflicting or confusing guidance from federal agencies, widespread public fear of both the disease and a potential cure, the media’s desire—on both sides—to unearth conflict and bolster a political angle on scientific issues and trial sites trying to find patients that fit narrow enrollment criteria are all factors that make the already staggering task of clinical trial enrollment extremely difficult.

Even if you’re working on CTR that has little or nothing to do with COVID-19, you’re dealing with trial sites that you once relied upon being torn in multiple directions. Medical institutions are increasingly understaffed and no longer focused on business as usual. In short, they’re underperforming and not meeting CTR goals. To compound the issue, patient referrals have plummeted, as physicians are focused elsewhere. And finally, outreach efforts are falling flat because no one really cares about “foot fungus” during the age of the worst global pandemic since The Spanish Flu.

A smarter approach

The truth is, during times of accelerated competition for patients, disparate resources and scattered focus by local sites, success will require a hyper-agile, targeted marketing campaign that can be thought of as PESO (Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned) Plus. Our approach to unlocking clinical trial enrollment relies heavily upon assembling the right team of experts, including: regulatory experts to iron-out complex Institutional Review Board situations; a top-notch analytics team; “audience architecture” acumen to drive all media choices; senior media strategists and practitioners; and site-driven technological innovation to make sure the funnel—from top to bottom—is fully operational and eradicates any obstacles that lay between a potential applicant and enrollment.

PESO Plus is known for its agility. Our use of sophisticated algorithms helps us understand where to focus in each city, whom to reach out to and how local ecosystems actually operate. We can see what’s working, when to use paid, earned, shared or owned marketing tactics, when to combine strategies for greater impact and, quite frankly, when to stop doing any work that’s not as effective as we thought. We let the truth of the market guide our efforts.

Within our model, we use the “5 Ms” as a strategic filter:

The 5 Ms

To have a good shot at delivering optimal patient enrollment numbers to clients, we recommend an approach that uses “The 5 Ms,” which works as follows:

Maximize your study sites. Each site is a launch pad to tell the full story of the trial (e.g., disease, history of medication, development of your treatment, past successes) and engage in thought leadership. Analytics provides the precision to know who can best tell the story, where we can most effectively reach patients and what aspects of our story will resonate.

Message the story so it’s simple and shareable. If we follow the ABCDE Model—audience, behavior, content, design/delivery and evaluation—we can create a straightforward narrative and align core messages that have potential to shape the market. We also optimize our ability to ensure all sites are aligned and all media are receiving the same basic messaging.

Match interest and media. If identifying interest is the main objective, we realize that awareness works more effectively when the audience is interested in the topic. Common sense. Through analytics, we can focus earned, shared and paid media on specific locations to match desire or need with awareness.

Make it easy to enroll. This is worth repeating: Make it easy to enroll. Build a 24/7 365 call center to support the trial and ensure that all calls are taken/followed-up. You may need to rebuild websites to improve ease of enrollment and ability to share content with others. Make the experience one that you would appreciate and take ownership of the full experience, not just part of it.

Magnify the voice of clinical investigators. Create blog posts and columns for trial investigators. Make sure to interview leading thought leaders locally to reach their audiences and expand impact. Amplify their important role and unlock their insights.

The result is an approach that aligns the audience with the story and not the reverse. With technology and analytics, we can create the experience that we would all want if we, ourselves, were the patients.


Michael Roth is Head of the Healthcare Practice and Partner at Bliss Integrated Communication. Bob Pearson is Founder and Chair of The Next Practices Group.

This article was featured in O’Dwyer’s October 2021 PR Firm Rankings Magazine (view original version).

Photo by Chokniti Khongchum on Pexels