Reaching millennial women ‘where they’re at’—on Instagram

Researchers in the Women’s Health Clinical Research Center at Penn Medicine began experimenting with using Instagram for clinical birth control trial recruitment in 2017, and have since seen a surge in research participants.

In 2014, while working in Penn’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Arden McAllister faced a challenge that can stump research coordinators: How do you effectively reach a large, diverse group of millennial-aged volunteers who may benefit from participating in clinical trials?

cartoon of a uterus punching back sperm like a boxer, indicating a humorous graphic approach to birth control
“Interested in trying an IUD? Consider participating in research,” reads the caption for this Instagram post, seeking enrollees to test an intrauterine device. (Image courtesy: Arden McAllister)

Unlike some studies that investigate the efficacy of devices or drugs to treat conditions and diseases, which often give researchers access to specific patient populations, McAllister was primarily seeking young, healthy women to test new birth control and emergency contraception methods. 

“We knew we had to reach out beyond the health system to find people,” says McAllister, now a research program manager at the Women’s Health Clinical Research Center in the Perelman School of Medicine

The traditional strategies to spread the word about clinical trials involved posting advertisements to Craigslist or in the Metro newspaper with a phone number listed for interested participants to call. Not only was that method time consuming, because coordinators had to individually pre-screen every caller, but it also tended to yield a homogenous group of study volunteers, since repeat people sought out and responded to those types of ads.

The group tried several solutions—including hiring external firms to create posts for Facebook and Google Adwords—to home in on volunteers who would not only qualify, but may benefit from their trials.

Scrolling through Instagram one night in 2017, McAllister clicked on a picture of jewelry that caught her eye. Minutes later, she had bought the necklace and suddenly had the answer to the problem vexing her at work.

Instagram’s ads are eye-catching and fun, McAllister realized, and the platform is where women in her target demographics are already spending a lot of time.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.