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Search Engine Marketing for Clinical Trial Recruitment: Opportunities and Challenges

Tuesday, June 27, 2017
Biotech & PharmaSEM & SEO

I Love SEM for Clinical Trial Recruitment

Your clinical trials team can successfully and cost-effectively run search engine marketing (SEM – can also be called pay-per-click/PPC) campaigns that will increase recruitment, but you’ll likely encounter challenges – some can be conquered, others are … well, is what it is. On the other hand the opportunities and efficiencies are hard to ignore. Just be sure you plan and have patience.

The primary benefits of clinical trial recruitment SEM campaigns are:

1. You can efficiently and actively manage the content and message that you are delivering so you can be sure to attract the most qualified patients,

2. Your landing pages get (and you only pay for) highly targeted visitors, and

3. You don’t have to spend a fortune to get started.

But we shouldn’t be cavalier about the difficulty of doing it right, so let’s first discuss some of the challenges you’ll likely face:



HIPAA. Patient data. Encryption. For you and your partners. ‘Nuff said.


Important internal compliance processes can add a little complexity to any type of marketing project, not just clinical trial recruitment. But trial recruitment has its own unique set of worries that must be considered – in addition to meeting internal policy requirements, you may have to get approval on the actual keywords you bid on. Give your team time to work through the content you present to patients in the ads, microsites and landing pages you create.

Obviously, as with any healthcare-related advertising, you need to follow FDA guidelines, as well.

Google AdWords Approval

AdWords restricted drug terms can be tricky to negotiate (and don’t forget about country-specific restrictions!). If your disease class, products or related keywords have any hint of controversy, Google’s AdWords team may refuse to allow you to purchase related keywords, or they may cause a significant delay, even though your business is completely legitimate. A recent campaign took us three months to sort out with Google. Persistence is required here! However, once you get approval, you may have an advantage over your competitors.

Low Search Interest

There may not be a lot of folks looking for your solution, or they may not be online, or you may be using phrases that are not in common use by your potential patients. If nobody is searching for what you’re offering, there’s not much you can do other than to expand relevant keyword coverage to get enough traffic.

Completion Data

If you’re sending potential recruits to, you can’t track whether they sign up, where they came from, who they are if they do … or pretty much anything else. They go into a black box. However, you can count the clicks to – it’s not great, but it’s the best you can do. In a recent campaign we ran, the client saw a 25% increase in recruits over what they anticipated.

Now let’s outline some of the benefits and opportunities that make SEM for clinical trial recruitment so compelling.


Efficiency, Speed, Flexibility

To be blunt, SEM can be really cheap. You can start small, test and ramp up quickly if you see success. And if it’s not working, change direction or simply turn it off.

Localized Recruiting

One of SEM’s most powerful tools may be geo-targeting. From regions and states to metro areas, you can show ads to HCPs who can refer patients or to people who can actually get to your trial site.


Demographics, keyword interest, location, referral data and all kinds of other stuff can be gleaned from the most basic SEM campaign. This can help you understand who is searching around your disease class and, perhaps, how to best communicate with them.


If you send visitors to a microsite or educational website, you can use the content as a way to educate visitors about the disease, what you’re doing and whether they would be a good candidate. This can work as a screening tool.

Additionally, you can use questionnaires to determine whether a patient is a good fit. Just be aware that the more questions you ask, the less likely the patient will submit the questionnaire.

Highly Targeted, Controlled Content

SEM gives you the ability to speak appropriately to different audiences. Based on various ways of organizing your campaigns and ad groups, you can show content or landing pages to pre-defined audiences. For example, you can show more “technical” content to a visitor who arrived through a phrase that would typically be used by a HCP and more “patient-friendly” content to a visitor who arrived through less sophisticated keywords. Also, unlike SEO, you can control exactly what people see and read online – with SEO, you’re never really sure what results will appear to search engine visitors.

Ultimately, this is the real power of SEM – the ability to combine keywords, content and demographics in experiments that can give you data that you can act on.

For example, we deduced that, based on the search terms used by visitors, a larger number of the visitors for a particular campaign were either HCPs or highly-engaged patients. We were able to refine the keyword bidding even further and change the microsite content to help HCPs inform and recommend the right patients (or help the patients better understand whether they were appropriate for the study). So, the clinical trials team got better recruits at a reasonable price.

In all honesty, for experienced online marketers, this is SEM 101 stuff. But because of the challenges, many clinical trials teams have been reluctant to use SEM. We think you should give it a try – you might find the results to be worthwhile.

Let us know if we can help.


Keywords – Words and phrases that you bid for in Google Adwords and Bing Ads. Your text ad will appear alongside search engine results for those keywords and you win and purchase.

Landing Page – A web page dedicated to traffic generated by search engine marketing. In other words, when someone clicks on an ad on Google or Bing, they are directed to a landing page. This is considered a best practice as you can customize the content to “match” the keywords and text ad, which creates a more satisfying experience for your visitors.

Microsite – A small website dedicated to SEM traffic.

Search Engine Marketing/SEM – The process of bidding on keywords to present your advertisements within Google or Bing search results pages.

Further Reading – Clinical Trial Recruitment with SEM

Google’s official policies regarding advertising for clinical trial recruitment (about one-third down the page):

This article by Forte Research gives a solid outline of PPC/SEM practices:

You might also consider social media advertising. This article by ClinEdge, gives proof that it can work:

And this one by MD Connect drives it home:

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